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The Ground War 

Hanging with the Florida troops out to win — and keep — a Kerry victory

Thursday, Oct 28 2004
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Photo by AP/WideWorld

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA — This state has long been the new California. Once upon a time, it was our sunny coast that was known as the source of America’s oddities, but that distinction has since decamped, along with the bulk of the country’s crazies, for Florida. If something strange happens, Florida’s the likely location. Elián, Shark Summer, Mohammed Atta’s suburban suicide preparation, the Raelian cult’s announcement (never proved) that they’d birthed a human clone named Eve — today’s theater of the bizarre tends to take the stage in the Sunshine State. There’s even a family down there that decided to be the first nuclear unit subdurally chipped with radio-frequency GPS transmitters. The 2000 election, then, was no surprise: When Florida played host to the country’s first constitutional crisis to leave the country without a president-elect, the fiasco just added a crowning feather in the state’s wildly plumed cap.

And it may be adding another one soon. Eerily, the 2004 election is shaping up as a potential repeat of 2000. With the wounds of the recount fresh in many minds, and the country even more polarized by Bush’s aggressively partisan presidency, both parties have mounted massive efforts to capture Florida. The Republicans want to keep the state red, maybe even deepen the shade with an actual margin. Democrats are eager for payback. Polls shows a tight race nationally, and an even tighter one in Florida — dead even, in fact, at 46 percent in the most recent St. Petersburg Times survey.

That divide hides the deeper complexity of Florida politics. Unlike some of the heartland swing states, Florida is a diverse patchwork of demographics, each with its own pet voting issues. Older Cuban immigrants still haven’t forgiven Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs, while their younger relatives and offspring are steadily moderating. The 150-mile Atlantic coast megalopolis stretching northward from Miami is an archipelago of independent suburbanites and Jewish retirees, traditional Democrats emotionally responsive to terror as an issue because of Israel. On the Gulf side are retirees from the Midwest, making Naples solid Bush country. The far north is south, culturally, with the panhandle being more like Mississippi than Miami. And the center is, well, the center, with a rough split between Bush and Gore in 2000.

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In this environment, the key to Florida’s electoral outcome will be turnout — mobilization for Kerry, and suppression for Bush. Democrats have poured resources into the peninsula, lured by those surprisingly competitive polling figures and a party of swollen ranks and renewed vigor that is, in the words of one local canvasser, “ready to roll.” Republicans are also on the move, but not only to get voters to the polls; their main focus, rather, has been to head off the Democratic base at the pass. They’ve fought tooth and nail against the Democrats’ surge of new registrations. Glenda Hood, Florida’s current secretary of state and Jeb Bush’s appointed successor to Katherine Harris, played along, helping to make it as hard as possible for the rising tide of new voters to cast their ballot.

What cannot be swayed can perhaps be stolen. The RNC, as we have seen in Oregon and Nevada, doesn’t mind hiring subcontractors who throw away voter registrations filled out by Democrats. In Florida, it has tried to invoke various regulations — some quite arcane, like the requirement in Broward county for the form to be on 80-pound paper — to have thousands of registrations officially discarded. For Democrats who do make the rolls, there awaits a host of tactics to suppress turnout on Election Day. And that’s before one even considers the specter of the new touch-screen voting machines installed since the last election. With none of these machines generating a paper record, and widespread concern about the security of the votes as computer scientists continually show the ease of putting an electronic thumb on the scales, the next hurricane to hit Florida could be called Diebold, or Sequoia, or Electronic Systems and Software. They’re gonna steal Florida again! is the fretful refrain from Democrats. “They may try,” said Marty Markowitz, an organizer with America Coming Together, adding with great oomph, “But we’re going to win anyway.”

 

LARRY DAVIS IS WITH the Kerry-Edwards legal team preparing for the Republican offensive. “They do have a lot of tricks up their sleeve,” worried Davis, who’s heading up the 600-attorney contingent for Broward County — the largest repository of Democratic voters in the state and the epicenter of the recount. We were at Le Tub, a rustic local eatery in Hollywood, Florida, that sits on the intercoastal waterway. It was moist out, and at 10 p.m. still near 80 degrees. The place, made of logs and lit by lanterns, looks like Tom Sawyer’s Island. While we ate, a huge pleasure boat with a dining room, dance hall and living palm trees planted on the roof motored slowly past.

Davis, who was caught up in the 36-day-long tempest of the recount, laid out the prongs of this year’s Republican suppression strategy. “First was the felon list,” he said, referring to the list of 47,000 people to be disqualified for voter registration that was compiled by Secretary of State Hood’s office. Kept secret at first, the list was made public by a court order, and was quickly discovered to be rife with errors. Moreover, almost none of the names were Latino, who trend more Republican in Florida, while half the list was African-American. This helped make it lopsidedly Democratic by a 3-to-1 margin. “Luckily, that was caught early. Now there’s the provisional ballots.”

A new Florida law allows for voters to receive provisional ballots if they arrive at a polling place and there’s no record of their registration. Those ballots are held, and election officials later verify the voters’ eligibility. This right, which was guaranteed by the Federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, was meant to remedy some of the problems of the 2000 election, when many properly registered voters, particularly in minority areas, were turned away because they didn’t appear on the rolls.

“But Florida,” Davis explained, “unlike many other states, throws out provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.” It’s a somewhat arbitrary regulation. Precincts move, as do people, especially in poor and minority areas, and if the voter turns out to be registered, there’s no real reason to invalidate the ballot.

“But it’s not just these big legal problems,” said Greg Sanders, a volunteer for the Kerry-Edwards office in Broward. We were shielding ourselves from a sudden rain beneath a royal palm outside the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center where Hillary Clinton had just rallied the faithful to “go vote early, and we’ll make sure it’s counted.” A few feet away, on a Saturday afternoon, a line of people waited to cast their ballots at early-voting stations. “There are all kinds of little tactics here and there,” Sanders said, “and they’re carefully planned.”

“Some are supposedly ‘mistakes’ like the felon list,” added his partner Don Martin, a full-time staffer for the campaign, “but when you add it up you can see the pattern of massive voter suppression.” Martin mentioned the incident in Orlando, where the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, teamed up with state troopers, stormed the houses of elderly African-Americans who were collecting absentee ballots in their community. There’s also the voter-registration forms, which some supervisors of elections were throwing out for missing a check in the citizenship box, despite the fact that the form’s required signature also attests to the registrant’s citizenship. “And,” he added, trying to fit a Kerry sign the size of a sheet of plywood into his truck, “what about Jacksonville?”

Jacksonville is its own special anomaly in an already anomalous state. By geography, it is the largest city in the country, but the population is only half a million people. Although it’s in the conservative reaches of northern Florida, Jacksonville’s Duval County has the largest number of registered African-American voters. Jacksonville is where one in five black votes was thrown out in 2000, which makes Jacksonville another one of the places in Florida where you could say 2000 was lost — or stolen.

This year, as the Democrats have launched their colossal early-voting drive, Duval’s supervisor of elections, a Republican, decided to open only a single polling location in Jacksonville. “And it’s downtown,” Martin said, “with scarce parking and construction nearby — miles away from black neighborhoods. Here in Broward County we have 14 polling locations, and there are huge lines. It’s ridiculous to open one poll. It was just meant to slow down black votes.”

Martin has seen this kind of soft disenfranchisement before. He was a registered election observer in 2000 at a precinct in inner-city Tampa. The Tampa–St. Petersburg area is the Gulf Coast anchor of the critical I-4 Corridor, the politically “purple” swath of territory that crosses the center of the state through Orlando and ends in Daytona. Tampa was highly contested in 2000 — it was Gore’s last campaign stop that Tuesday morning — and it’s where Martin witnessed up close the problem of registered voters discovering once they got to the polls that their names were not on the county’s rolls. Martin explained how they were directed to a second line, where a poll worker would call the Supervisor of Elections Office to confirm their registration. That line, with one phone and an inadequate staff, quickly got so long — “many, many hours long” — that people left. Martin counted 130 people who were turned away — a quarter of what became Bush’s margin, and, as Martin noted, “That was just in one precinct!” It’s how they operate, he explained, using implicit vote suppression that stays mostly under the radar. But this year, Martin was also worrying about the new potential for explicit vote suppression: the touch-screen voting machines.

Everyone in Florida seems terrified of these machines as the electronic Trojan Horse that will surreptitiously end American Democracy. I voted on one — a Diebold, even — in Pasadena at an early polling station, and although I wasn’t thrilled, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt — until, that is, I casually asked the poll worker about the paper record and he dismissed the question defensively: “The machines are fine, okay — ballots don’t have a paper record either.”

“Except the goddamn ballot,” I said with great alarm.

 

IT WAS THE SAME ATTITUDE I discovered down here: Election officials tend to ignore, rather than assuage, voters’ concerns about the machines. One guy I talked to said not to worry; that the votes were stored on a hard drive. No shit — like I thought the thing was just a Fisher-Price plastic box full of marbles. The officials like to explain how the components of the system work, but the problem isn’t the system; it’s the lack of an independent record for verification.

“That was really the basis of our case,” explained Ellen McLaren, a legislative aide for local Congressman Robert Wexler, who unsuccessfully brought a federal case against the counties employing the machines. “There’s no paper trail.” She explained how Florida’s election law requires a manual recount if the result is within a certain margin. “But with these machines,” she said, “a manual recount is not possible.” She also noted, very reasonably, that as with any new technology, it seems like a good idea to make sure it’s foolproof — especially before installing it at the core of our democratic process.

And at the moment, they’re not foolproof. Avi Rubin is the computer-science professor at Johns Hopkins who first publicized security flaws in Diebold’s code, and he has since looked at other models and only become less confident in the machines’ reliability. “A big concern,” he explained, “is that they could be rigged. Manufacturers could set the outcome. Or election workers. Any time there’s physical access to the machine, there’s the potential to change it.” With Diebold’s machines, Rubin noted as an example, he and his students discovered that a quick, one-byte alteration in a particular file could switch votes from one candidate to another. “Ironically,” he said, “in trying to get rid of the hanging chads, they’ve gotten rid of ballots altogether.”

Theresa LePore regretfully acknowledged this irony as well. LePore is the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections who designed the infamous butterfly ballot that confused my grandparents’ bridge partners into voting for Pat Buchanan, and she has since attracted another round of controversy for installing 4,500 Sequoia machines into her 692 voting precincts. LePore has become a local villain, perhaps unfairly. Whenever I mention the name around Florida Democrats, they start hissing like vampires around garlic.

She’s been accused of treason for putting the wrong man in the White House, despite the fact that both parties approved her butterfly ballot. And the Sequoia machines were partly an overcompensation for that experience. “We were trying to fix the problems of 2000,” she said ruefully. But like other election officials, she refuses to accept that there are valid concerns with touch-screen voting. That kind of obstinacy is what’s contributing to the looming uncertainty of the upcoming election. “The one thing we’re going to learn in Florida,” professor Rubin observed, “is that this technology will leave doubt. It’s as simple as that.”

 

LAWANDA JOSEPH HAS NO DOUBTS. “If we get out the vote,” she said as I caught up with her leaving the Clinton rally, “Kerry will win Florida.” Joseph is one small part of the monumental effort to provide a margin for Kerry that no amount of chicanery could close. “And we are,” she said. “I mean, Hillary came down to the hood to get the people to the polls!” Joseph has been to many other rallies, already voted, told her friends to follow suit, and canvassed on her own in the poorest black neighborhoods off of Sistrunk Avenue, looking for single women to motivate. Democrats may be worried but they’re not daunted. “We remember what happened,” Joseph said, “and we’re ready this time.”

It was the same message — don’t get mad; get even — delivered by Al Gore two days later at Broward Community College. He’d already been up in Jacksonville and Tallahassee, encouraging enthusiastic crowds to vote, creating a crush of people at each city’s single polling station. “The time to vote is today,” he said. “That way there will be plenty of time for them to count it.” Not far from the stage were the doors leading to one of Broward’s early-voting stations. The wait inside was an hour and a half.

This has been the experience in Democratic counties all over Florida. The campaign, as well as independent progressive groups like America Coming Together (ACT), have been extremely successful at generating a swell of early voters and absentee-ballot requests. In Broward County alone, 147,000 absentee ballots were mailed out, and 65,000 people showed up at the polls within the first week of early voting.

“The response is overwhelming,” Marty Markowitz, the organizer with ACT, said. “It’s like my dream came true to be part of this groundswell.” Markowitz is spending his days lathered in Kerry loyalists, but the energy he talks about does seem palpable on the streets. The very first person I saw upon leaving the Fort Lauderdale airport was holding a Kerry sign, and it’s been Kerry on the streets ever since. It’s impossible not to run into people with Kerry pins, or even a whole Kerry event. In the entire time I’ve been here, however, I’ve seen only a single Bush-Cheney supporter, and she looked pretty lonely. On Sunday, I counted 14 Kerry bumper stickers on the Florida Turnpike between Lauderhill and Green Acres, and not a one for Bush.

 

BUT WHO NEEDS ANECDOTES, when you have data? Over at ACT’s massive Broward offices, I saw how the group has been systematically identifying and assessing Kerry support for months, and its efforts have been more successful than anticipated. ACT may be living up to its billing as the largest voter mobilization in history; by November 2, the group will have spent $125 million, which dwarfs, by a factor of 10, the DNC’s get-out-the-vote funding in 2000.

“Ninety-nine percent of that has gone toward person-to-person canvassing,” said Joy Reid, who showed me around. We saw the Palm Pilots the groups used over the spring and summer to visit voters and record their interest in issues and voting preference. “Now we have a relationship with those people,” Reid explained, “and we’re going back, targeting specifically people who support Kerry but are unlikely to vote without a little encouragement.” We were standing in a giant room with 300 chairs to accommodate the people who disperse daily with detailed walk lists to reach those people. On the wall was a figure: 158,000 door knocks to date. That’s one county. “This kind of thing has never been done before,” she said. As innovative data managers, ACT has also developed a system to keep track of who’s voted already, and although I promised not to divulge details, the outlook is promising.

ACT’s disciplined organization, too, is just one of many ground operations. MoveOn’s well-funded political-action committee is making a parallel effort. As are the NAACP Voter Fund, the unions, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, and a host of even more specifically targeted get-out-the-vote groups looking to draw out the Caribbean, liberal Latino and youth votes. “The trends are looking good across the board,” Reid said. “Hispanics are polling at 40 percent for Kerry in Florida. Remember, Bush got 80 percent in 2000. And it’s looking like more younger voters are going to come out than last time. Bush’s positives are capping out under 50 percent. I think it’s going to be a very surprising result.”

There’s no arguing with that. Florida’s become such a nail-biter any result would be a surprise. There are so many absentee ballots out, in fact, that it may not be possible to count them all by Tuesday night. And if the Republicans have their way, there’s sure to be enough mayhem on Election Day to leave room for lasting dispute. In fact, the latest Republican tactic to emerge is the use of its poll observers to challenge individuals’ right to vote at the precinct level. “They’ll do it in Democratic precincts,” Davis said, “to slow down the voting there.” It was to have a similar effect as the indirect disenfranchisement Markowitz and others saw last time, although this year it will be more organized. “I’m worried about things like that,” Markowitz said when I brought it up, “but I’m not distracted.” We were sitting at a union rally in downtown Fort Lauderdale. The PA was loudly looping the SEIU 1199’s theme song, “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.” Near us were the cones demarcating yet another early-polling booth filled with people on a weekend. “Because what’s going to happen here,” Markowitz continued, “is the Democratic kind of democracy — we’re going to get more votes in the ballot boxes than they can possible steal.”

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