The Volusia triangle

Where ballots disappear, partisans scuffle and election officials try to put the genie back in the bottle.

By Anthony York

Published November 12, 2000 2:00AM (EST)

Daytona Beach, home of the world-famous Daytona Motor Speedway, is the heart of Volusia County. But this week, the buzz has focused on nearby DeLand, the seat of county government. This is one of the places Democratic and Republican protesters, and the media, have gathered daily since the election wrangling in Florida began.

In a presidential race filled with quirks, suspense and intrigue enough to fill several lifetimes, nowhere has the story been weirder than here, in the heart of the Volusia triangle.

First, the county's ballot-counting machine crashed momentarily on Election Night, but not before a computer glitch showed a Socialist Party candidate had more than 9,000 votes, while Vice President Al Gore had minus 16,000. Those numbers were sent out over the Internet, picked up by local newspapers and subsequently reported by major networks on Election Night.

The socialist eventually ended up with 9 votes in the county, and Gore with 97,063 to George W. Bush's 82,214. But the Volusia numbers were among the first signs that something strange was going on in the state of Florida on Election Night.

Then, during Wednesday's recount, a forgotten ballot bag emerged from a county poll worker's trunk. County election officials had such a bad week that they agreed with Democrats' requests for the first countywide hand count, to try to mask their public relations nightmare.

But in their efforts to clean up their act, Volusia stumbled once again. On Friday, as the county unlocked its vaults to retrieve its 200,000 or so ballots to begin the count, live television cameras rolled as three ballot bags emerged from the vaults without their tamper-proof seals intact.

"This manual recount process had nothing to do with any lack of confidence of the unofficial totals as they stand right now," insists county spokesman Dave Byron. "But [county election officials] felt that because this issue is so, so important to the public, it would be appropriate to take this extraordinary step so that when this process is completed, there will be absolutely no question whatsoever about what the total in Volusia County is."

Now the hand count itself is in the center of the race's latest political fire storm. Early Saturday, former Secretary of State James Baker announced the Bush campaign had filed an injunction to prevent hand counts of ballots because they were "subject to a host of risks."

Byron clearly didn't relish picking a fight with Baker. Asked if the hand count will give him a more accurate tally than the machine count, he qualified his answer. "I think the answer to that is probably yes in the sense that what you have is the ability to engage the intent of the voter. You have the eyes and ears of the [county employees] to make that decision."

But he quickly added that he did "not at all expect the hand count to result in any significant change" from the original electronically generated numbers. So even in their attempt at a goodwill gesture, Byron and Volusia once again found themselves on the defensive.

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The Democratic Party asked for the hand count during Volusia's first recount, which yielded the same result as the election night tally, because officials merely replaced the memory cards back into the tabulating machines and reprinted the results from the original vote. It was only after the public relations disaster in the county this week that Volusia granted the Democrats' request for a total manual recount.

Now, county officials are under extreme pressure to finish the recount before Tuesday at 5 p.m., the deadline for all Florida counties to finish their tallies. If they do not meet the deadline, individual members of the state election commission will face stiff fines from the state.

To meet that deadline, Volusia has put more than 300 employees on "hurricane duty," which allows county employees from outside the election division to do election work. They will be counting ballots around the clock until all 200,000 some ballots are recounted, one by one. "This is just like any other natural disaster," Byron says. It is unclear if he is being ironic.

Clearly, Dave Byron is having a bad week. Not as bad as the Democratic election supervisor who approved the Palm Beach butterfly ballot, Theresa LaPore. But he is showing scars from being battered by the press and pols alike.

When asked about the mysterious vote totals, Byron says, "I'm glad you asked that," a look of aggravation on his face. "This has been a story on the national level that has been very, very inaccurately reported," he said. "It's been the genie I can't get back in the bottle." Byron says it was a simple computer glitch that did not affect the actual internal vote total, just the projections that were sent out to the rest of the world.

So while the Republican and Democratic brain trusts huddle in Tallahassee, and Democratic protesters focus on Palm Beach County, Volusia serves as a third front in the battle for Florida, a remote outpost on the state's East Coast which is fast becoming an abbreviation for political incompetence.

It's 10 a.m. Saturday at the Thomas Kelly County Administration Building and the plaza outside is packed. On one side, 200 or so Republican observers with blue name tags hover, smoking cigarettes, holding Bush/Cheney signs, waiting for the recount to begin. The Democrats are quarantined on the other side of the square.

Inside the building, county officials are still counting write-in ballots for the first time, and the process is excruciatingly slow. These write-ins must be tabulated before the countywide recount can begin. Once it does, more than 100 tables will be set up, each with a bag of ballots and one county employee to tabulate the results. Monitoring that official's every move will be two observers, one Democrat and one Republican.

Though Volusia's intent to conduct a hand count was announced two days earlier, and the media is reporting it as if it's underway, it has actually yet to begin. We are still waiting for the first count to be completed. Watching the county officials and partisan watchdogs count write-in ballots precinct by precinct, ballot by ballot, is like watching snails mate.

The body language of the sheriff's deputy inside says it all -- slumped in his chair, arms folded across his chest, gravity winning the war with his eyelids and lips. Nobody ever said democracy in action was exciting.

In fact, even the observers waiting outside, Republican and Democrat alike, seem weary. There are Gore flacks from Nashville, Bush soldiers from Austin. Even California Democratic Party political director Bob Mulholland is seen lurking around the county building, cellphone stuck to his ear.

But most of the people milling about are locals, and they are the diehards. They are the kind of people who give up a Saturday to shout down the opposition, and trade the same charges back and forth that have flown between Gore and Bush supporters since Tuesday. For them, this is Christmas in July. Though worn and weary, it is apparent that on some base level, none of them could be happier.

As we wait, a standoff begins in front of me, like a flare up in a smoldering fire, between a Bush supporter and a Gore backer, all for the benefit of photographers snapping away dutifully.

Bush booster Christopher Cutillo is a clean-cut, olive-skinned Floridian with a cellphone strapped though a belt loop as if it were a revolver. He is holding a Bush sign in one hand, making the three finger "W" salute with the other. And to his left, George Edwards wears acid-washed jeans, a Florida Marlins cap and a neck brace, hoisting a homemade placard that reads: "Gore -- The people's choice. Bush: $" The photographers can't get enough.

Soon, Cutillo gets in a shouting match with a CNN crew who wants him out of their shot as they grab Edwards for an interview. Welcome to post-election life in the Volusia triangle.

For these true believers, this is pure gravy. Just as every reporter in the state is aware this is the biggest story any of us will ever cover in our entire lives, the foot soldiers here in the Sunshine State are loving this. But they are tired. We are all tired.

After CNN is done with Edwards, Cutillo tries to get a piece of him, as stragglers from the Republican herd slowly wander over to egg him on. But the sense of exhaustion here is unmistakable.

"If I weren't here, I'd be doing something with my family," Cutillo tells me, beads of sweat forming on his forehead in the 75 degree November heat. "But I'm here because I want to make sure my child has a future. I'm a true American. I've been out here since 7:30, and I'll stay here as long as it takes."

Cutillo says he's outraged at the way Gore has handled the Florida situation, using phrases like "sore loser" and "constitutional crisis" to describe the vice president and the situation he has brought about. "It's really bad when you see [Fidel] Castro on TV making fun of us, offering to send election observers. Gore's making us look bad. If the results were reversed, I think Mr. W. would have conceded."

But Edwards, who owns a small concrete business and coaches Little League, says Bush is just afraid of an honest count. "Why's he cryin'?" he asks of Bush, once again posing for a television camera as we speak. "I'm here doing my patriotic duty. America's the greatest country in the world, and we deserve an honest election. I don't know what the deal is with this Bush. I liked his father, but this guy just isn't the same as his father."

On and on they go, as the wheels of democracy churn slowly inside the county building. The media is getting restless. The locals are getting restless. And as of 4 o'clock, the recount that was supposed to begin Saturday morning hasn't.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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2000 Elections