Tracking the vote
Problems with the vote in Florida started surfacing the
day before Election Day
Reporter's Notebook by Steven Cooper
Monday morning, November 6
My phone rings at the Orlando television station where I am a consumer-affairs
reporter. A woman named Belinda tells me she can't vote. "I moved earlier in
the year and had my driver's license changed," she says. "Now I get a letter in
the mail telling me I'm not registered to vote." Belinda believes Florida's
motor-voter system has failed her. "The DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles]
never transferred my voter registration."
When Belinda changed her driver's license to reflect her move from one Orange
County address to another, she had the option of transferring her voter
registration to a new precinct. She says the DMV worker asked if that was her
wish; she answered affirmatively. She thought the deed was done.
Now she's calling me asking why she can't vote.
I tell her I'll get back to her.
Before I can, another caller, Angie, tells me she too is a voter without a
precinct. "I feel like my right to vote has been stripped away," she says.
Angie moved to Florida two years ago. In the process of obtaining her driver's
license, she was asked if she'd like to register to vote. Like Belinda, Angie
took advantage of the motor-voter system and, after leaving the DMV, assumed
she was eligible to vote in any election held in Florida. "Now they tell me
they have no record of my registration."
Hmm. Do we have a story here?
Monday afternoon, November 6
The lines are unusually long outside the office of the Orange County supervisor
of elections in downtown Orlando. These are the kind of serpentine lines you
usually see down the road at Disney World's Space Mountain, not on quiet little
tree-lined Kaley Street on a Monday afternoon.
"These are people who can't vote tomorrow," a clerk explains. "They have to
come here, sign an affidavit, and we let them vote today. We've been seeing
lines like this all day."
Indeed, Bill Cowles, the Orange County supervisor of elections, predicts voter
turnout tomorrow will be "heavy." We've been hearing the same from other
counties throughout the day. We tell Cowles about Belinda and Angie. He nods.
He says he's aware that some registrations have not been completely processed.
"Some people forget to sign the application," he says. "The application is
considered incomplete if it isn't signed."
Does the DMV ever forget to register a voter or fail to forward that
registration to state election officials?
"[As the supervisor of elections] I'm not able to go in and train employees or
state DMV staff on how to do it," Cowles says.
Tuesday morning, November 7
There are no excuses. People will vote. The weather, after all, is Florida
weather. This is, after all, Florida.
Besides, Florida thinks Florida matters. Gore has been leading in state polls
for about a week now. Five points, not much, but a Gore win in Florida could
pave his way to the White House. The voters in both parties are energized.
Voter turnout climbs to 60 percent in one county.
Seventy percent in another.
Minorities are finding their way to the polls in record numbers.
Tuesday evening, November 7
Americans on the East Coast have barely digested their dinner -- some dinner
tables, undoubtedly, have yet to be cleared -- when the networks call Florida
for Gore. Republicans deflate. Democrats stand up in the bleachers and cheer.
The precincts in Florida, meanwhile, continue to report their numbers. And,
within an hour, the numbers look, well, like fuzzy math. What explains, for
example, the steady but small trailing of Gore's numbers behind Bush's? Does
this look odd to anyone else? Would somebody say something, please?
The networks, at this point, make no attempt to reconcile the exit-poll numbers
with the precinct reports. It is during this hour or so of limbo that word
first arrives about problems in Palm Beach County. Confused voters, some in
tears, have left the polls not knowing whom they voted for. No one makes much
of this, accustomed as we are in the media to assume elderly people are easily
confused about everything from pill-taking to sandwich-making.
Finally, someone at one of the networks eyes the corner of the television
screen, takes a hard look at the rolling precinct numbers in Florida, takes
another look at the telethon-like tote board hovering over the network anchor's
head, and realizes, hey, it doesn't add up. Gore is down in Florida! But we
gave him Florida's electoral votes! Yikes!
The dominoes begin to fall. One network after another recants. Florida is
Now Florida is confused and undecided, but the weather is gorgeous, a balmy
night really, so why worry?
Then Florida leaps into the Bush column.
Then it leaps out.
Then it leaps back in.
The networks have red faces, Floridians have weary eyes. This will all be
resolved by tomorrow.
Wednesday morning, November 8
Rumor overheard on Orlando-area radio stations: racial profiling at inner-city
polling places in Hillsborough County kept African-American voters away from
the polls. Blacks were denied the right to vote? The NAACP has been called in
Reports from overnight sources: there have been unusually long delays in
getting vote counts out of Dade and Broward Counties, both believed to be
strongly in Gore's favor; 16,000 votes in Volusia County are unaccounted for --
one bag of ballots was accidentally placed in a county vault, computer-disk
errors were reported in at least one precinct, and some 19,000 votes were
thrown out in Palm Beach County, where hundreds of people, if not thousands,
report being confused by the so-called butterfly ballot.
Nice old Jewish ladies are unbelievably nishgut about the possibility
their votes went to Pat Buchanan. They share their stories with reporters. The
tsuris of nice old Jewish ladies enters the national discourse.
Wednesday early afternoon, November 8
Apparently, nice old Jewish ladies aren't the only ones in Palm Beach who are
A crew feeds video from Palm Beach County. Good video. Make that great video.
The streets are full, teeming with angry protesters. An entire block, it seems,
has been swallowed by the crowd. Citizens cry foul, demand a re-vote. The
demonstration seems spontaneous, unorchestrated, raw.
The organized, engineered speeches don't happen until later. The speechmakers
are on their way to Florida. Right now it's just the people: the Democrats
versus the Republicans clashing in front of the office of the Palm Beach County
supervisor of elections. Eventually the Democrats are moved to one side of the
street, the Republicans to the other. Perhaps they'll stay there. This is Palm
Beach, after all. People do have manners.
Wednesday afternoon, November 8
Call it Wacky Wednesday. A crew prepares to report live from the office of the
Volusia County supervisor of elections. There is much to report on. Those
16,000 votes, for example. The computer-disk error. And what about James
Harris, the Socialist candidate for president? How did he manage to get more
than 9000 votes in Volusia County when he only managed to scrape up some 20,000
Moments before the Volusia County reporter is given a stand-by to go live, a
man enters the elections office and dumps a blue vinyl bag on the counter.
Ballots, he explains.
He forgot to turn them in last night.
Didn't realize they were in his car.
Wednesday night, November 8
The protests continue in Palm Beach.
The pundits worry that Al Gore will look like a sore loser.
The nation examines the butterfly ballot.
The Republicans decry the Florida recount.
Former secretary of state James Baker spends the night in Florida. So does
former secretary of state Warren Christopher.
If a diplomatic crisis should break out between, say, Fort Myers and Fort
Lauderdale, we've never been in better shape to resolve it.
Thursday, November 9
The protests continue in Palm Beach County.
The Republicans decry the Florida recount.
Few, if any, national reporters remind the nation that this first Florida
recount is mandated by law. It is not done by request, nor by demand. It is not
a case of Florida having good manners. Florida is following the law.
Florida is getting a bad reputation.
Floridians are embarrassed.
Maybe we have been exposed to too much sun.
Secretary Baker speaks.
So does Secretary Christopher.
We break from programming and bring both speeches live.
Several people call to tell us how hard it is to follow As the World
Turns with so many interruptions about the presidential elections. We
apologize for the inconvenience.
Average Joe and Average Jane continue to debate the butterfly ballot, calling
the people of Palm Beach either "idiotic bottom feeders" or "reasonably and
Friday, November 10
We are calling today "Voter Vent Day." We read viewer e-mail and play viewer
phone calls on the air.
Here's my favorite:
"But, Daddy, you promised! Make Jeb fix it or I am going to throw a tantrum!
Waaaah! My point: Bush would do the same thing if the shoe was on the other
foot. . . . It is unfair to accuse Gore of whining when he is within his legal
rights to fight this."
And, oh yes, I realize I haven't returned a single phone call since Monday.
My voice-mail box is full.
There are dozens of calls from viewers in Orange, Osceola, and Seminole
Seems they registered to vote through the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Seems they were turned away from the polls on Tuesday and told they were not
Suddenly, I remember Belinda and Angie.
Steven Cooper is an Emmy Award-winning consumer-affairs
reporter with WKMG-TV in Orlando, Florida. This is his first piece for the