The Boston Phoenix November 16 - 23, 2000


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 undecided.

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.

Won't it?

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 to investigate.

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 pissed off.

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 votes nationwide?

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.

Imagine that!

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 understandably confused."

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 Counties.

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 registered voters.

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 Phoenix.