Odile Dumas' daughter Monique, a student at Howard University in Washington D.C., was so anxious to vote that back in September she requested an absentee ballot from Palm Beach County in Florida. On Friday, just five days before the election, when her ballot still hadn't arrived, she called her mother Odile in a panic. Odile immediately went to the Supervisor of Elections office to get her daughter's ballot and Federal Express it to her. But the lines were too long and she had to get to work. So she returned on Saturday and took her place on line. "My black ancestors were jailed and killed for trying to vote," said Odile. "The least I can do is stand in line so that my daughter can vote." Odile's patience turned to exasperation, however, when the 8-hour wait meant that she had missed the deadline for Federal Express and the wait was all for naught. "My daughter has just lost her right to vote," said Odile. "Is this the democracy we fought for?"
Odile was not alone in her frustration. Also on line was Shelly Marcus, trying to get an absentee ballot that her son Joshua, a student at Emory College, had requested on September 11. "My son is 18 and this was his first opportunity to vote for president. I'm ashamed that once again, Palm Beach can't get it right." Gregory Berman, who waited on line for 8 hours and 40 minutes to get an absentee ballot for his 90-year-old father in a nursing home, was furious. "No one in America should have to wait 8 hours to vote, and certainly not to get an absentee ballot that the county was supposed to send out long ago. What you are witnessing here in Palm Beach County is democracy in crisis-again."
Welcome to Palm Beach County, home in 2000 of the infamous butterfly ballots, "Jews for Buchanan", and hanging chads. The infamous Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore was voted out of office in this past August - but unfortunately her term doesn't end until January. That gives her an opportunity to muck up one more election as her parting salvo. And before election day has even arrived, it looks like she's succeeding.
In both Palm Beach County and neighboring Broward County, run by a Democratic Supervisor, there have been a record number of requests for absentee ballots-mostly from the elderly, disabled, voters living outside the county, and people who don't trust the new paperless voting machines. Both counties have been flooded by complaints from people who never received their ballots. In Broward, when the media reported that 58,000 absentee ballots seemed to have "disappeared," Supervisor Brenda Snipes opened up an emergency center to field calls, brought in volunteers to call all 21,000 out-of-town voters, and overnighted thousands of ballots with prepaid overnight return envelopes. Here in Palm Beach County, Theresa LePore's constituents had no comparable support.
Ms. LePore also put obstacles in the way of people wanting to vote early. One of the solutions to the calamity of the 2000 election was to institute early voting, an option for voters to go to the polls up to two weeks in advance. It is estimated that one-third of Florida's voters will take advantage of this new option. Yet after 10 days of voting, out of 744,000 registered voters in Palm Beach County, less than 30,000 had been able to vote early- one of the lowest turnouts in the state. One reason is that Theresa LePore offered her constituents only eight locations for early voting in the entire county, making the waiting time in Palm Beach County longer than anywhere else in the state. "These long lines are ridiculous," said Omar Khan, whose father, a diabetic who was fasting for Ramadan, was forced to abandon his attempt to vote after hours of standing in the hot sun. "Either it is tremendous incompetence or deliberate voter suppression. In either case, the supervisor is not doing her job." Liz Grisaru, a volunteer lawyer with Kerry's Voting Rights Protection Team, said that they had tried to negotiate with Theresa LePore for more early voting locations, more voting machines, more poll workers, and longer hours, but all of their efforts were rebuffed. "The Supervisor has failed miserably in her duty to the public by not responding to the large volume of voters," said Ms. Grisaru.
Another example of Ms. LePore's attempts to put up obstacles relates to newly registered voters. Secretary of State Glenda Hood, herself an old family friend of the Bushes who is proving to be as partisan as her predecessor Katherine Harris, directed county officials to nullify applications if the applicants didn't check a box saying they were citizens, despite the fact that elsewhere on the application they have signed an oath of citizenship. While Broward and Miami-Dade counties are ignoring this bureaucratic requirement that disenfranchises new voters, in Palm Beach, Ms. LePore is following the directive.
And don't forget the issue of direct disenfranchisement of former felons - a practice which dates back to the times of slavery. This year's list in Florida, prepared by a private consulting firm that donates heavily to the Republican Party, disproportionately included African Americans (who vote Democrat nine to one) yet only 61 Hispanic names (who vote heavily Republican in Florida). The list was dropped after a lawsuit forced the list into the light of day, yet the ACLU estimates that 600,000 people in Florida, predominantly African Americans, are denied their voting rights because of their criminal history,
Another explosive issue is the paperless electronic voting machines that will be used by about half the voters in Florida. Ms. LePore spent $14 million in federal funds provided by the Help America Vote Act on this supposed solution to the problems of the butterfly ballots and hanging chads of the 2000 elections. But to be audited in the case of a close election or contested voting, electronic voting machines must yield a paper trail. Yet Glenda Hood and Ms. LePore fought to make it illegal to do a paper recount. Since the introduction of paperless electronic voting in March of 2002, Palm Beach County has witnessed one election in which the front-runner - who entered the election with a 17-point lead over his nearest opponent - finished an upset third. In the following two elections, the number of people who came to vote - but whose votes were not registered - greatly exceeded the margin of victory. These inexplicable anomalies sufficiently outraged local Democratic Congressman Robert Wexler that he unsuccessfully filed suit against Ms. LePore and the State of Florida to force the adoption of a paper trail.
So while hundreds of thousands of citizens in Florida are being prevented from voting due to problems with absentee ballots, obstacles in early voting, excessive technicalities barring registration, and felon disenfranchisement, even those who actually make it to the polls have little guarantee that their votes will be counted correctly by the voting machines. If the strategy of the democratic forces is an unprecedented voter mobilization, the strategy of the Republicans in Florida is clearly voter suppression and possibly even outright theft.
What we've seen in Florida so far demonstrates a clear lesson. The efforts of tens of thousands of volunteers to get folks registered and out to vote are paying off handsomely with massively increased voter participation. The efforts of monitors documenting irregularities like the Fair Election International (www.fairelection.us) delegation of Global Exchange (www.globalexchange.org) and groups like Election Protection (www.electionprotection.org) to help voters resolve problems, are indispensable. Yet the specter of a stolen election looms large, and Floridians are bracing themselves.
"I'm worried," said Janis Botsko, a local Democratic activist who has been working non-stop to register voters, call voters and knock on their doors. "I think there are going to be a lot of shenanigans. After all, we have the grand combination of Jeb Bush, Glenda Hood and Theresa LePore. But we also have a plan to counter their shenanigans, and that is to overwhelm them with huge numbers of voters. There will be such a groundswell that they won't be able to get away with it."
And if that doesn't work, these angry voters will not sit by quietly. Many have already signed the No Stolen Elections Pledge (see www.nov3.us) and are setting up their emergency protest sites at federal buildings and elections offices, just in case. "Here in Florida we've learned to prepare for hurricanes," said West Palm activist Brian Hefner. "And if that's what happens on November 2, this time we'll be ready."
Medea Benjamin and Deborah James are in Florida observing the election with CodePink (www.codepinkalert.org). They are also part of the No Stolen Election campaign (www.nov3.us).