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An absence of ballots



On April 14 the 11,000 voters of Spring Lake, Parramore, Callahan, Holden Heights and a neighborhood called Florida Center North will go to the polls -- or, if tradition holds, 10 percent of them will go to the polls. Another 9 percent will vote by absentee ballot. By the day's end, the citizens of Orlando's council District 5 will have their second-ever city commissioner. Unless a lawsuit stops the election.

In the city's poorest -- yet most hotly-contested -- council district, anything can happen. Key mailings may be lost. Absentee votes -- perhaps from two strategically placed nursing homes at the edges of the mostly African-American district -- could be the margin of victory.

Gabe Kaimowitz, a lawyer and former city activist, is suing the city. He had planned to run for the seat, but missed the deadline. The Gainesville resident planned to live at the Coalition for the Homeless, his suit states, to demonstrate that the district's poor are ignored. The suit also claims the district violates the Voting Rights Act, in that it was racially gerrymandered to pack in poor blacks, diluting their effect on city policy.

Yet after 18 years under Nap Ford, the city's poorest district saw four women battle for the chance to lead it. On Tuesday, March 10, Daisy Lynum and Charlie Jean Salter emerged from the pack.

Salter has run four times; once as a write-in. In 1994, she polled more absentee votes than Ford polled at the machines and came within 15 of victory. Salter demanded three recounts and then filed suit alleging fraudulent balloting by Ford's forces. The charges went nowhere.

Lynum, a municipal planning board member, is a newcomer to electoral politics. She came within a few dozen votes of winning the 50 percent majority necessary to avoid the runoff. Lynum received 11 more absentee votes than Salter, but she also got three times the number of machine ballots. Late in the campaign, Lynum got a lift from major donors, including at least $2,000 from Carolina-Florida Properties, the company that has bought more than 60 acres in the district for an undefined gentrification project

"I don't think you can go in with $30 million and do anything worse than was there," Lynum says of Carolina-Florida. The company funded Mercerdes Clark in the early running but switched to Lynum.

Clark finished third, 59 votes behind Salter -- by losing in the absentee category 309 to 106. "I do think that people who are disabled should be encouraged to cast absentee ballots," Clark says. "But they should be made aware of who they are really voting for." Clark also claimed some voters had told her they had been offered money for votes -- but she would not divulge names.

At least 400 postcards Clark's campaign sent to Jackson Oaks high-rise apartments were discarded by the post office, she says, adding that the shape of the district -- the subject of Kaimowitz's suit -- makes campaigning difficult. "District 5 is such a hodgepodge thing, it does affect [the campaign]. The whole section out near Conroy -- you can't reach those people unless you do a mailing."

Lynum dismisses Kaimowitz but piles on Salter's fondness for absentee ballots. "The only way they can attempt to win is by going out and stuffing the ballots -- by people who are not only slow voters but no voters," Lynum charges "I'm going to leave it at that."

Ironically, in '94, Salter said Ford had used questionable tactics to obtain the votes of nursing-home residents. Kaimowitz has alleged the two nursing homes were included in the district in order to facilitate an easy victory for City Hall's favored candidate, although a review of the redistricting process reveals no indication of that.

In last week's election, just 44 votes came from those nursing homes, says Assistant City Attorney Amy Iennaco.

James Mitchell, Salter's campaign manager, endures a good-natured razzing from Iennaco, who called him "Mr. Absentee." But in the upcoming election, he promises, absentees will be an afterthought. "We will concentrate," he says, "on getting people to the polls."

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