The real issue in the 2004 election in Florida--at least in Palm Beach County where the uprising against the 2000 election began--is the election itself. Ask people what their main concerns are, as I have been doing for the past few days, and the answer is almost always procedural. "I'm concerned about the limited number of early voting stations." "I'm concerned about the absentee ballots." "I'm concerned about the paperless electronic voting machines."
Another frequent answer is the atmosphere. Although Democrats and Republicans are both convinced that they are the party of civility, the most notorious example of un- civility so far has in fact been the Democrat who tried to run down former Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris with his car, claiming he had a right to express his opinion.
Bush versus Kerry, Jewish Republicans versus Jewish Democrats, ordinary people versus the election bureaucracy, carpet-bagging election protection volunteers (of whom I am one) versus local authorities. Everywhere you look the antagonisms are so intense that among moderates the phrase "I hate the hatred" has almost become a political position. Elsewhere in the country the principal subject of the election may be terror or the economy; in Florida the subject is democracy.
An estimated million people statewide have already handed in or mailed their ballots under relaxed rules permitting anyone to request an absentee ballot (read "paper," read "safer"). At least another million have "early-voted," a term that seems to have become a new verb.
These early voters--about 35,000 of them in Palm Beach County alone as of Saturday afternoon, with thousands more expected Sunday and Monday--are the heroes of this election. In broiling sun, in dripping humidity, old people, young people, black people, white people, sick people, healthy people, people with southern drawls and people with Caribbean accents are standing in line for hours. I have personally witnessed citizens waiting 4 to 6 hours (and have been told that some have waited 8 hours) to cast their vote early for one reason: to make sure their votes are counted.
I asked people on line at two of the county's early voting sites, one largely middle- class and white, the other largely working–class and black, why they were doing it. The answers I heard were always the same. Whatever the 2000 fiasco meant for the country as a whole, for many people here it was a personal insult. Bitter at the emptiness of their franchise and embarrassed by the widespread national opinion of Floridians as stupid, incompetent, and corrupt--they are taking it upon themselves to set it right. The Haitian bus driver, the Cuban businesswoman and the Jewish therapist all said in almost the same words: This time I am not taking any chances!
Unfortunately, it will not be that straightforward. The new Katherine Harris, Republican Secretary of State Glenda Hood, blandly tells everyone who will listen that thanks to many reforms Florida is now a "success story," and she wishes former President Jimmy Carter would come to see the changes for himself instead of criticizing it in the Washington Post.
But on the ground things look very different. For every element of the electoral process that could end up affecting the vote count--that is to say, all of them--there is at this point such a tangle of fact and rumor that it is hard to separate them. What is intentional and what is incompetence? No one really knows. The very polls that were created for early voting are vulnerable to the charge of disenfranchising voters simply because they are open one time rather than another or located here rather than there.
The absentee ballots are a complete mess. Not only did thousands seemingly disappear in the mail (as happened in neighboring Broward County as well), but that failure has been addressed by a helter-skelter system of sending out replacements. The running arguments about this process has been that it (a) favors the better- educated voters (read "wealthier," read "Republican") who have the intellectual means to get through the official labyrinth and (b) makes it harder to discover who will be voting twice.
Looming above all is the question of the self-referential voting machines whose only recourse for recounting will be themselves. Sequoia, the manufacturer of the machines used here in Palm Beach County, is running training sessions for selected observers who will monitor the counting, as are the manufacturers of the machines in use elsewhere. But, if my conversations with local nerds represent a fair sampling, there is an enormous amount of skepticism that the machines will function as anticipated. In general, the more knowledgeable the nerd--and some of them actually worked with the machines in an earlier primary--the greater the skepticism.
As for the voters, they have already started reporting problems: A ballot review registering a different pattern than what the voter voted along with an election official who attempted to persuade her to push the final button anyway and a screen where the Kerry option doesn't "take"--to name only a few. A bit too like a video circulating on the Internet which shows a cursor desperately trying to capture a "Kerry" icon darting all over the screen like an elusive video game character, the report has not been verified as far as I know. But it is not likely to be the last. Paranoia happens, as does corruption, as Floridians have more reasons than citizens of other states to know.
And this is only Sunday.
© 2004 The Nation