Eye Of The Storm
Florida's 25 electoral votes will decide the next President. But first comes the struggle to decide who should get them
No one would blame the people of Florida if they were starting to
get a little snippy, as Al Gore might put it. First they
provided--and endured--the superabundant drama of Elian Gonzalez.
Now all the frustrations of one of the closest elections in
American history have made a landing on Palm Beach. Florida is
the center of a struggle over the operations of American
democracy at every level, from the wisdom of the Electoral
College to the arrangement of punch holes on a paper ballot.
Fidel Castro's Foreign Minister, Felipe Perez Roque, even
suggested last week that a new election in Florida would be a
good idea. Maybe they could send election monitors from Cuba to
ensure the fairness of the vote count. It would all be funny if
the laughs didn't come so hard.
With George W. Bush possibly sustaining a lead of fewer than 400
votes after last week's statewide recount, the outcome in
Florida, and thus the nation, has shifted to the most low-tech of
fronts. Everything hinges on the absentee votes still drifting in
from abroad, which are not expected to be fully counted until
this Friday. Even more important, because they could easily
reverse Bush's narrow lead, are the manual recounts that have
been approved by local electoral commissions in Palm Beach,
Broward and Volusia counties.
A commission in Miami-Dade was supposed to meet this week to
consider a Democratic request for a hand count there as well.
But on Saturday, as the tedious process was beginning elsewhere,
the Bush campaign asked a federal judge in South Florida to
disqualify manual counts anywhere in the state and certify the
recount already completed. Democrats quickly put out word that
Bush had liked hand counts in Texas. Three years ago, he signed
a law recommending them to settle disputed votes.
Both parties had been saying for weeks that the presidential
campaign would all come down to Florida. Neither of them
suspected how much of it would come down to Palm Beach County. Or
to the experience of people like Andre Fladell, 52, a Jewish
chiropractor. At around 7 a.m., he punched his ballot at Orchard
Elementary School in Delray Beach. On the way out, when he heard
people complain that the ballot had confused them, he assumed
they had not paid enough attention. But at lunch later with
friends, Fladell says, he broke into a cold sweat when he heard
them describe the correct punch hole for Gore-Lieberman. Fladell
realized that he too had inadvertently voted for Pat Buchanan, a
man who has had, to put it mildly, some problems with Jewish
voters. "A ballot is supposed to lead me to my vote," says
Fladell, who is now a plaintiff in one of several lawsuits
seeking to invalidate the Palm Beach vote. "This one led me
Frustration with the Palm Beach ballot had begun to go public
even before the polls closed. At the Lucerne Point residence
community, poll workers were so overwhelmed by complaints that
they had to draw a diagram showing where each ticket's punch
hole was located. Theresa LePore, the Palm Beach County election
supervisor who had signed off on the ballot design, soon
arranged for a flyer to be distributed at polling places around
the county that would help voters decipher it. LePore, a
Democrat, told reporters that day that she had favored the
design partly because it permitted larger type that was easier
for older voters to read.
Around 4 p.m., Democratic National Committee officials put in an
urgent call to TeleQuest, a Texas-based telemarketing firm,
asking it to call thousands of Palm Beach voters to alert them to
the complications on the ballot. Two hours later the company's
phone clerks began making the first of some 5,000 calls. A
TeleQuest spokesman said afterward almost half the people
contacted thought they might have made a mistake when they voted.
"I don't think people understand the complexity of Florida," says
Republican Lieutenant Governor Frank Brogan. "You can't take
anything for granted about this state." Certainly not the
electoral map. Over the past decade, the political power of
Miami's conservative Cuban Americans has been challenged by an
influx of non-Cuban Latinos who lean toward the Democrats.
Non-Latino Democrats in the southern end of the state are
balanced by white Republicans in the northern Panhandle, while
myriad new immigrant groups have allegiances that are still up
for grabs. Dario Moreno, a political scientist at Miami's Florida
International University, points out that the mix was not usually
inflammatory--"as long as lightning didn't strike."
Lightning was striking everywhere by the early evening of
Election Day, as hundreds of optimistic state Republicans
gathered to watch the returns in the grand ballroom of the
Doubletree Hotel in Tallahassee. When the networks first awarded
Florida to Gore, around 7:50 p.m., the party mood deflated fast.
In an upstairs suite, the state's usually boisterous Republican
leaders were thunderstruck. "There was dead silence," says
Brogan. "It didn't seem possible." Al Cardenas, the state's
G.O.P. chairman, was frantically checking returns on a laptop
that showed Bush ahead in the few precincts that had reported.
Knowing that the loss of Florida could discourage Republicans
from bothering to vote in Western states, where the polls were
still open, Cardenas put in the first of what would be more than
20 calls that night to Florida Governor Jeb Bush in Austin,
Texas, who was following returns on his laptop.
Even some Florida Democratic officials were surprised by the
early awarding of the state to Gore. One explanation was that
initial exit polls had been skewed by an early and especially
large turnout of African-American voters for Gore. In the end,
they would account for more than 16% of the state's overall vote,
almost double the usual black vote. Less than an hour after the
network announcement, the Republican response began to take
shape. Brogan and the other officials in his suite went
downstairs to the ballroom to announce that they had serious
doubts about the networks' projections. "We didn't believe
Florida was over," he says.
It wasn't. A few hours later the networks had taken the state
away from Gore and given it to Bush--along with the presidency.
After 2 a.m. the returns from two heavily Democratic areas,
Miami's Dade County and Broward, where Fort Lauderdale is
located, had cut Bush's lead for a while to as few as 200 votes.
That was when Florida Democratic leaders started working their
phones furiously, calling state attorney general Bob
Butterworth, Gore's Florida campaign chairman. Butterworth
himself was on the phone with senior Gore advisers in Nashville,
telling them that the Vice President should not concede. "You
couldn't help feeling that something was being stolen from us,"
says a state Democratic chief.
At 4 a.m., right after Gore phoned Bush to retract his
concession, Volusia County Judge Michael McDermott ordered the
building that houses the election supervisors, as well as the
Dumpsters outside, sealed. At one point during election night,
hundreds of votes for Gore had disappeared from the computer
count, though they reappeared later. There is a history of
election disputes in Volusia, among them the 1996 re-election of
sheriff Bob Vogel, when a controversial count of absentee
ballots put Vogel ahead of an opponent he had trailed on
election night. That led two years later to a Florida Supreme
Court decision that said elections in that state could be
invalidated merely for reasons of Election Day error, even in
the absence of outright fraud, so long as there was doubt that
the outcome reflected "the will of the voters." But it did not
specify when the remedy should involve ordering a new election,
something Democrats have talked about for Palm Beach. And
Florida courts have almost never gone to that length.
As the closeness of the vote became apparent, Democratic
officials were also concerned about the absentee vote, which they
knew could be decisive in an election as close as this one, but
which had also been at issue in some famously disputed Florida
elections of recent years. In the Miami Beach mayoral race three
years ago, incumbent Joe Carollo, a Republican, won 51% of the
votes cast at polling places. His challenger, ex-mayor Xavier
Suarez, who ran as an independent, won 61% of the absentees,
forcing the contest into a runoff that Suarez won with a large
number of absentee ballots. Carollo filed suit, claiming that
Suarez forged signatures on absentee ballots. In March 1998,
Judge Thomas S. Wilson Jr. found massive fraud and ordered a new
election. When Carollo appealed, arguing he should simply be
declared the winner without a new election, the higher court
On Wednesday morning resentment over the Palm Beach screwup was
high. The state Democratic Party set up a toll-free number to
allow people to call in reports of voting irregularities. If the
election was turning into a mystery, then all of Florida would be
vacuumed for clues. Questions mounted: When poll workers turned
away people with the explanation that there were not enough
ballots, when they illegally asked seniors for a Social Security
number, was it an innocent mistake or deliberate obstruction?
Meanwhile, a statewide recount of the Florida vote was already
assured, triggered by a law that requires one for any election in
which the winning margin is under one-half of 1% of the vote.
It was also on Wednesday that Jesse Jackson flew to Miami from
Gore's campaign headquarters in Nashville, Tenn. Jackson was
quick to insist that the issue was "not about black and white,
it's about wrong and right," but his presence helped point up
another angle to the Democratic challenge: complaints of what
some black voters believed were subtle forms of racial
intimidation, such as the police roadblock that was set up on
voting day about a mile from a minority-neighborhood polling
place in rural Wakulla County.
On Thursday more than 300 African-American students from nearby
Florida A&M University came to the capitol in Tallahassee and
staged a sit-in, demanding to see Jeb Bush and state attorney
general Butterworth. But by this time frustrated Republicans were
getting snippy too. That afternoon scores of counter protesters
arrived at the same site wearing Bush-Cheney T shirts, shouting
down pro-Gore demonstrators on the capitol plaza and waving signs
that read MY GRANDMOTHER CAN VOTE CORRECTLY...WHY CAN'T YOURS?
If she couldn't, it might have been because of the cardboard
ballots used in the disputed counties. The machines that tabulate
the punch cards often invalidate ballots in which voters have not
cleanly broken through the perforated hole. A bit of cardboard
chaff clinging to the puncture, officially known as a "hanging
chad," is enough to confuse the counting machine, which helps
explain how thousands of ballots can register a vote for some
offices but not others. Of the more than 600,000 votes cast in
Broward County, the machines found no vote for President on 6,686
ballots in a place that gave Gore 68% of the vote. In counties in
which ballots were scanned by other means, the percentage was
typically a fraction of 1%. In Pinellas County, when election
officials removed the chaff from ballots before they were
submitted for recount by the machines, Gore picked up an
additional 417 votes.
When Bill Daley, the Gore campaign chairman, went before the
cameras on Thursday to emphasize that the Gore campaign was ready
to challenge the Florida outcome, lawsuits challenging the ballot
were sprouting all around Palm Beach County. Many were
spearheaded by citizens with Democratic Party connections, though
none of them yet had the official involvement of the state or
national party. Jim Green, an A.C.L.U. lawyer in Palm Beach, was
collecting statements from anyone who called his office. "All
five lines here were lit up nonstop," he says. With union
activists rounding up Florida notaries to take affidavits from
the callers, Green figured that he would have 250 plaintiffs for
the ballot-challenge suit he planned to file this week.
On Thursday night, Palm Beach County circuit-court judge Kathleen
Kroll issued an injunction that barred the county from certifying
the recount results until a hearing on Nov. 14. In this initial
phase, Florida law gives lower-court judges considerable power to
decide if a vote is valid and, if not, to rule on remedies. The
initial thing to determine is whether the confusing Palm Beach
ballot was illegal in the first place. Democrats contend that it
violates a provision of state election law that requires each
candidate's name to appear to the left of the corresponding punch
hole. Republicans say the Democrats are reading the wrong section
of Florida law. Though the Palm Beach ballots are cardboard, the
cards are read by machines, and the law, they say, allows the
names of candidates on "mechanical" ballots to be placed on
either side of the hole.
Republicans also complained that samples of the ballot, which had
been used before in Palm Beach without incident, had been
published in the local paper and mailed to voters before the
election. But Lillian Gaines, 67, a retired schoolteacher in West
Palm Beach who is a plaintiff in one of the ballot lawsuits, says
the sample did not show that the punch holes would not be aligned
with the names. "This is what made it so confusing for people
when they finally went into the booth," says her attorney, Harold
The judges can also choose from any number of methods to
determine whether the votes affected were sufficient to change
the statewide outcome, since the central issue is which candidate
will be awarded Florida's electoral votes. One of those methods
is a statistical analysis of the kind that has shown that
Buchanan's total of 3,407 votes in heavily Democratic Palm Beach
was far higher than his tally elsewhere in the state. If a court
decides that the election is invalid, it would still be necessary
to rule on whether a new vote is the only remedy. Florida courts,
like courts in most other states, have been reluctant to order
new elections even in cases of outright fraud. But in a
circumstance as novel and highly charged as this one, the past
may not be any guide.
No guide at all. Jesse Jackson says the conclusion to this year's
campaign is like a football game tied in the fourth quarter.
"Overtime ain't agony," he said. "If you go to sudden death,
that's wow-wee! That's shakalakalaka." By the end of this week,
the Florida votes may all be counted and recounted, but the court
rulings may still be pending, and the election of the President
may still depend on how the dust settles in the Sunshine State.
Shakalakalaka would be the word for it.
--Reported by Tim Padgett and Kathie Klarreich/Palm Beach,
Cathy Booth Thomas and Timothy Roche/Tallahassee, Brad
Liston/Volusia, Jeanne Dequine and Mary Sutter/Miami and Viveca