Election Fears Are the Latest Hurricane for Sunshine State
By JONATHAN TILOVE
September 13, 2004
c. Newhouse News Service
MIAMI _ Patrick Merloe travels the globe promoting free and fair elections. Everywhere from Afghanistan to Angola, he says, he is asked the same question: “What’s happening in Florida?”
On this day Merloe, director of electoral programs for the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, is at “ground zero” _ a union hall in the neighborhood known as Liberty City, training a packed house of activists, mostly black and some Hispanic, in how to get out the vote, guard the vote and, need be, mobilize in the days after the vote to prevent a replay of 2000 when, he says to murmurs of affirmation, “I know the election was stolen.”
Meanwhile, 67 miles due north, at the new GOP Action Headquarters in West Palm Beach, Gay Hart Gaines, president of the Palm Beach Republican Club, wonders, “Do they really believe that?”
After all, from the Republican vantage point, says Sid Dinerstein, the party’s county chairman, Democrats are the perennial electoral grifters whose cries of racism and disenfranchisement are a cynical smokescreen for their mischief. “They’ve been cheating for generations,” he says.
Nov. 2 may come and go without incident. It may be remembered as a calm and orderly occasion that produced a clear and decisive winner. But less than a month out, there are mounting fears here and elsewhere that the election results are going to be contested in ways that make 2000 look like a dress rehearsal. No election in modern times has arrived to such scrutiny and amid such suspicion, even dread.
“If you don’t have a clear result, if you have a muddled result of any kind, it’s going to cause a constitutional crisis,” says Roger Stone, the veteran Republican political strategist who now operates from an office in South Beach. “It will be cataclysmic.”
Michael Genovese, a leading scholar of the presidency from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, agrees. Absent a clean and clear outcome, “I think this could get ugly and could get very divisive and undermine the very legitimacy of the next president.” The very scrutiny intended to prevent a crisis may only inflame it, Genovese adds.
Already, the campaigns of George W. Bush and John Kerry _ not to mention the panoply of nonpartisan and independent political groups operating in their slipstreams and the observers, analysts and activists bobbing in their wakes _ are eyeing Nov. 2 as perhaps a beginning, not an end.
Paula Polsyn, a liberal activist from Broward County, arrives at a Kerry event at the massive Kings Point condo complex in Tamarac, nursing a bad vibe. “I’m very, very, very worried _ very worried,” she says. If history repeats itself, “We’re going to have a revolution in this country.”
At a panel discussion about potential election problems at the University of Miami Law School, Muslima Lewis, president of the black bar association in Miami-Dade County, predicts that if another election gives rise to feelings that black voters were not fairly treated, “there will be tremendous unrest _ there will be.”
Florida, of course, has no exclusive franchise on electoral mayhem. The margin of victory was even smaller in New Mexico four years ago than here, and controversy could as easily fall in that land of enchantment, in Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania or any other closely fought state on which the Electoral College majority comes to hinge.
But until then, Florida has first claim to the nation’s attention, because it happened here before and because, in another compelling plot point, the president’s brother, Jeb Bush, remains governor.
Like other states, Florida is contending with a crush of new registrations and applications for absentee balloting, with early voting, with the new federal requirement that voters be allowed to cast a “provisional ballot” subject to later verification if their registration is in doubt, and with sometimes confusing rules about when photo identification is required.
Fifteen of the larger Florida counties are also now using touch-screen voting. U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., has filed suit because they don’t permit the paper trail without which, he contends, the recounts mandated in very close elections cannot proceed.
This presents a novel dilemma, according to Ronnie Dugger, founder of the populist Alliance for Democracy, who first wrote about the perils of computerized vote fixing in The New Yorker in 1988. In 2000, by Dugger’s calculation, 12 million people cast electronic paperless ballots. This year the number will be 35 million.
“We are approaching the first national election in history where we know in advance that the outcome will not be knowable if it’s a close election,” Dugger says.
To this angst, add an Election Day scene at select precincts that may well be worthy of Fellini.
The unofficial observers from the Voices for Working Families crew _ the ones being trained at the union hall in Liberty City _ will gather at the polls wearing their trademark red T-shirts as an alert to those who may need help. Some will deploy clickers to make their own vote counts.
Another “Election Protection” coalition of liberal, nonpartisan groups _ including People for the American Way, the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law _ will send lawyers and law students to key precincts in unprecedented numbers _ 2,000 in Florida alone. Their T-shirts and signs will bear the message “Having trouble voting? Call us.” They will carry disposable cameras to record infractions.
International observers will include an official team, invited by Secretary of State Colin Powell, from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The assembly’s current president is none other than U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., one of the Congressional Black Caucus members whose effort to block certification of the Electoral College results in January 2001 was considered a powerful scene in the Michael Moore movie “Fahrenheit 9/11.” (Hastings has recused himself from his organization’s election monitoring project in the United States.)
The Kerry campaign and the Democratic National Committee this week announced they will dispatch as many as 10,000 lawyers across America on Election Day and have established five post-election “SWAT teams” to hit the ground running wherever they might be needed.
“We’ll have attorneys everywhere, ready to go to court,” says Raul Martinez, the Democratic mayor of Hialeah.
Underpinning this effort is the conviction, submerged somewhat after Sept. 11 but back now with a vengeance, that, in Martinez’s words, “It was stolen last time. It was. It’s a fact.”
To Republicans, that’s a “myth,” an “urban legend” designed especially to rouse black voters, in the description of Andre Cadogan, chairman of the Black Republican Caucus of Palm Beach County.
“It’s `Rashomon,”’ says Roger Stone. “There is no eternal truth. Everybody has a strong claim that they’re right in terms of the way this came out.”
Stone is not affiliated with Bush this year. But in 2000, he helped organize the successful effort to shut down the recount in Miami-Dade. The Bush team won, he says, because “they have very sharp elbows.”
A year after the election, according to the Gallup Poll, half the public thought Bush had won fair and square, 32 percent thought he won on a technicality, and 15 percent thought he stole it. But a recent New York Times poll found that among black respondents, 93 percent believe the 2000 result was not legitimate.
And as Bush’s presidency has become increasingly consequential, the Democratic pain has grown more keen. As West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel put it, “What happened here changed the history of the world in very unfortunate ways.”
Compounding the raw feelings among black Floridians are historic and obvious white efforts to keep them from voting and more recent Republican “ballot security measures,” which Democrats and civil rights groups view as subtle attempts to diminish the black vote.
“There is so much history around suppressing the vote,” says Reginald Mitchell, who is Florida Election Protection director for People for the American Way.
At the press conference where the Democrats revealed their endgame legal strategy, they also unveiled an ad for black radio that bluntly suggests Republicans want only whites to vote. It begins: “George Bush and the Republicans will tell you to vote. That you’re part of the process, a part of history. Yep, that’s what you’ll hear. If you’re white.”
Asked by a reporter to explain the justification, Dennis Archer, the former Detroit mayor and American Bar Association president, fired back that Republicans were playing “head games” in their ads on black radio, and that “if we stood idly by and did absolutely nothing, you would write about how the Democratic Party happens to be a bunch of jerks. Sorry, that is not going to happen.”
To Republicans, the real voting scandal is not restrictive access to the ballot, but the contrary.
Early in his new book, “Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy,” Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund notes that election systems are so bad that at least eight of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were registered voters.
In August, a New York Daily News investigation found that some 46,000 New Yorkers were registered to vote in both the city and in Florida, and that by nearly a 6-to-1 margin, they were registered Democrats.
“These guys think Mayor Daley’s a hero,” says Dinerstein, the Palm Beach County GOP chairman.
Indeed, at the Kerry event the next day at Kings Point, Joe Schreiber, a resident and the mayor of Tamarac, warms up the crowd with condemnation of “unscrupulous” Republicans and some nostalgic words about FDR’s New Deal, and the old politics of Chicago’s Daley.
“Years ago it was vote early and often, the cemetery thing,” Schreiber says. “We’ve got to do what we can.”
Republicans can play their strategy closer to the vest. They were considered to have had the superior legal operation in place early on. And _ at least in critical states like Florida and Ohio _ they control the levers of government.
“I don’t think there are unprecedented efforts, at least on our side,” says Eric Buermann, who was the Florida Republican Party’s general counsel in 2000 and is now counsel to the Miami-Dade GOP. After all, he adds, “what happened in 2000 was sort of the 100-year flood. I don’t think we’re going to see that for another 100 years.”
Then again, he reminds himself, “we did just have four hurricanes.”