Gordon Sasser first got the feeling that something strange was going on when the telephone pierced the silence of a weekday afternoon at his house on the swampy fringes of Tallahassee, in northern Florida. An automated voice had some surprising news: Did he know that he could now cast his presidential vote by phone, and could do so right now, using the keypad? Sasser's suspicion that somebody was trying to trick him into thinking he was casting a vote -- presumably so that he wouldn't cast a real one -- was far from unique.
James Scruggs, another Tallahassee resident, remembers a similar unease about the young woman who phoned him at home, insistently offering to collect his absentee ballot to ensure its safe delivery.
Then there was the elderly woman who called the local elections office last week to register her husband for an absentee vote. According to office staff, as she hung up she made a point of thanking them: She wouldn't have thought to get in touch about her husband, she said, if it hadn't been for their helpful call the night before, when someone had taken her own details, assuring her that she was now registered and would receive a ballot. But the elections office makes no such calls.
"It's 'Alice in Wonderland' here now," sighed Ion Sancho, elections supervisor for Leon County, which includes Tallahassee, Florida's capital. "Up is down, and down is up ... My feeling is that someone has essentially conned her into believing that she's going to be voting."
Sancho is a long-standing thorn in the side of Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, who presides from a building across the street. But even he seems astonished by the reports reaching his office these days. "I've been an elections supervisor for 16 years now, and nobody has ever called me with this kind of activity occurring," he said.
The mysterious calls are only the most vivid symptoms of broader problems in Florida that critics fear could leave thousands of citizens disenfranchised on Nov. 2. The new electronic voting machines have proved error-prone, and may not be capable of accurate recounts. State authorities are threatening to withhold votes from people who forget to tick a box confirming that they are U.S. citizens, even though they signed a statement to that effect on the same form. And among several legal feuds, Florida Democrats are accusing the state of failing properly to implement measures designed to prevent a repeat of the 2000 fiasco, when thousands of African-Americans were wrongly prevented from voting.
The U.S. election officially began in Florida Monday as early voting sites opened across the state -- though in Duval County, a Republican-run area with a large African-American population, that too is a subject of dispute. Only one early voting site, far from densely populated neighborhoods, has been made available for the entire county. "One location for a county of 831 acres -- that's the most asinine thing I've ever heard," said the Rev. William Bolden, a Jacksonville pastor who is among many to detect a pattern in the controversies.
Though voters have been affected across the spectrum of race and politics -- Sasser, for one, is white and a Republican -- they will have the effect, Democrats say, of limiting turnout among minorities, the poor and less educated voters, all of whom traditionally vote Democratic. They have been registered in record numbers this year, so the stakes are higher than ever. "Certainly, somebody is afraid," Bolden said.
Florida faded from international headlines after the dramas of 2000, but on the broad, tree-lined streets of the state capital, things have rarely been more fraught. Katherine Harris, the elected Republican secretary of state widely seen as a key fighter in the effort to make sure George W. Bush won the 2000 recount process, is gone. But in her place is Glenda Hood, a former Republican officeholder who, thanks to a change in state law, was not elected but appointed directly by Gov. Bush, the president's brother.
Hood has found herself embroiled in a sequence of rows. First, there was the attempt to undertake a new purge of alleged ex-felons from Florida's voter lists -- the same practice that left up to 22,000 people, mainly African-Americans, wrongly denied a vote in 2000. That was discontinued after it was revealed that the new list contained 22,000 blacks and only 61 Hispanics, who traditionally vote Republican in Florida.
Now Hood's office is instructing county officials to reject registration forms from thousands of Floridians who did not check a box answering "yes" to the question "Are you a U.S. citizen?" -- even though, in signing the form, applicants agree with the statement "I do solemnly swear ... [that] I am a U.S. citizen."
Hood is also fighting a courtroom battle over Florida's new system of provisional ballots, introduced after the 2000 fiasco so that people who arrived at the polls to discover they were not on the register could vote anyway, then have their case considered by officials. Hood has decreed that the facility will not be available to anybody who turns up at the wrong precinct within their county.
"But in most cases, the errors in the precinct information are made by the elections office, not by the voter," said Jerry Traynham, a lawyer who is fighting Hood on a number of cases. "Everything they're doing seems to be designed to exclude people from the democratic process, rather than including them."
Traynham's other major case involves the touch-screen voting machines on which almost a third of Americans will be voting the week after next. Hood had originally sought to have the machines excluded from any manual recounts -- a decision overturned in court -- but now her critics argue that the machines leave an insufficient audit trail: No individual paper receipt is produced when a citizen votes.
"They certified technology in Florida which probably can't actually do a real recount," Traynham said. "The real danger is that if something goes wrong, you'll never know."
In earlier primary elections in Florida in 2002, according to a recent Vanity Fair investigation, one precinct using the machines recorded no votes, several others had their voter records wiped out, 24 polling places opened late, and dozens of poll workers resigned.
Hood has consistently denied allegations of bias, suggesting that the 11th hour nature of the lawsuits shows they are motivated by partisanship. "It is ridiculous to suggest that Secretary Hood is doing anything other than reaching out to all voters in the state," her spokeswoman, Alia Faraj, told the Tampa Tribune. "Our goal is to get as many people as possible to participate in the process."
Sancho seems exasperated by it all -- though he insists that, in Leon County at least, he will do all he can to make sure all who are legally entitled to vote are actually able to do so. "What I learned in 2000 was that Florida is not committed to ensuring that all citizens have equal access to voting," he said. "I saw how this movie went the first time. I don't want to watch it a second time."