Fun and games in Florida

Are voter mishaps in the Sunshine State a Republican plot, a Democratic scheme or just pure abject incompetence?

Published October 29, 2004 8:14PM (EDT)

Late Wednesday afternoon, I called up the Republican Party of Broward County, Fla., to ask about the group's get-out-the-vote efforts during the final weekend of the campaign. But Sharon Day, the personable woman who answered the phone, wasn't much interested in talking to a reporter about phone banking and canvassing. Instead, she wondered: Had Salon heard about all the awful things Democrats were doing to Republicans in South Florida? Had we heard about how labor union volunteers were harassing Bush supporters waiting in line at early voting stations -- pointing at folks who refused to take Kerry-Edwards bumper stickers and yelling, "We've got a stupid Bush voter here, a stupid Bush voter over here!"? Had we heard about the union-sponsored protest at Bush-Cheney campaign offices that erupted into violence, leaving one Bush campaign aide in Orlando with a fractured arm?

And most important, did we know about the 60,000 absentee ballots that Broward County officials had apparently forgotten to send to voters? Come Tuesday, Day warned, Republicans in the state would remember these things; if George W. Bush loses the race, "We're going to be looking at what happened to those 60,000 absentee ballots."

The next morning, I spoke to Tony Fransetta, president of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans, a left-leaning group in Wellington, Fla., a suburb just east of West Palm Beach. Fransetta quickly dismissed Day's concerns of Democratic thuggery. "There's always nuts on both sides," he said. But he too was very worried that tens of thousands of people in South Florida hadn't yet received their absentee ballots and were now being forced to wait in line for three or more hours at early voting locations. If John Kerry loses Florida, the missing absentee ballots, Fransetta said, surely will have played a part. And as Fransetta saw it, the entire fiasco was "by design," engineered by Republican officials running the state's elections, including Gov. Jeb Bush.

Nobody yet knows whether the story of South Florida's missing absentee ballots -- a tale that came to light this week and once again subjected the region to the world's ridicule -- is one of partisan malfeasance, or of abject incompetence; in Florida, these days, either cause is equally likely. But even if the facts are in doubt, each side has had no trouble spinning the story to its own ends. Republicans, who've traditionally enjoyed an advantage in the absentee count, say that a great deal of their voters could be disenfranchised by the flaw. They blame Democrats, who overwhelmingly control the levers of power in South Florida, including Brenda Snipes, Broward County's Democratic election supervisor.

But Democrats point out that since Florida changed its law to allow people to request absentee ballots for any reason at all, more Kerry votes than Bush votes will likely be lost. They also note that Snipes, while nominally a Democrat, was appointed to her position by Jeb Bush. To underscore Democrats' fears, on Thursday evening the filmmaker Michael Moore led a small cadre of activists in protest outside Snipes' office, shouting, as if she didn't already know it, "The whole world is watching!"

The battle between the parties over who will suffer from -- and who's to blame for -- the missing absentee ballots is part of a larger war being fought by Republicans and Democrats in Florida and other battleground states this year. As we approach Election Day, each side is struggling to prove that the other is dirtier, trickier, slipperier in its approach to democracy, that it will do anything to win. The rhetorical battle serves two purposes, observers say -- to spur the troops to vote out the rascals on the other side, and to preserve some basis for calling the election into question in the case of a disappointing result on Election Day.

And even though Democrats have a firmer case for claiming that Republicans are playing dirty (considering what happened here last time), Republicans in the state have been particularly effective at painting their opponents as the real villains in the electoral process. There's no evidence of a systematic effort by Democrats to disenfranchise Republicans -- while there is evidence of the opposite -- but Republicans now routinely claim that they fear a Democratic plan to keep GOP voters away from the polls, or to otherwise discount GOP votes. In the past month, Republicans in the state and at the national level have reported numerous incidents that they say suggests a larger Democratic effort at mischief. The GOP says that its offices have been attacked, its voters have been harassed, and that on Election Day, Democrats and groups affiliated with the party are mounting an effort to clog up polling places in order to force Republicans to leave the lines. Democrats strenuously, and credibly, deny these charges -- but if Republicans lose on Tuesday, will they say that the race was stolen from them?

The absentee ballot problem in South Florida materialized suddenly, apparently without anyone in an official capacity noticing that something was amiss until it was too late to do anything constructive to address the issue. The troubles began a few weeks ago, when, according to numerous media reports, people began complaining to their county offices that the ballots they'd requested hadn't arrived in the mail. For a while, officials in Broward County and Palm Beach County insisted that there was no problem; the ballots were likely in the mail, they told voters. But as the weeks passed and the ballots didn't arrive, the scope of the flaw slowly started to become clear. "First they said there were just a few thousand missing," Sharon Day, who represents Florida Republicans as a committeewoman to the Republican National Committee, says of the officials in Broward, her home county. "Then they tell us it's 32,000 thousand. Now they're telling the newspapers that it's 60,000. If you were a voter, would you maybe feel like maybe there's some problem here?"

In neighboring Palm Beach County, where mishaps have continued to dog Theresa LePore, the elections supervisor infamous for her role in designing 2000's "butterfly ballot," voters have reported similar problems. Because the ballots could be anywhere en route between the elections office and the county, there's no clear count of how many Palm Beach ballots are actually missing. This week, officials in both counties agreed to launch emergency plans to re-send absentee forms, some by overnight mail. But exactly which ballots -- whether to out-of-state voters or to local voters, to Republicans or to Democrats -- will be re-sent is still a matter of some concern to people in the state. And even if the ballots get sent out soon, many wonder if there will be enough time for people to mail them back before Tuesday.

"All of them should be overnighted, both ways," says Tony Fransetta of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans. "Why should a person pay $20 to have his ballot sent back?" Fransetta worries that the missing ballots will badly damage Kerry's chances in Florida. He estimates that of the 60,000 or more people whose ballots went missing, perhaps 15,000 will be unable to vote at early voting stations or on Election Day, either because they're out of the country or too infirm to make it to the polls. Of those 15,000, Fransetta guesses that two-thirds, or 10,000, will be Democrats -- possibly enough votes, in other words, to sway the race.

Fransetta's number is more of a wild estimate than an educated guess, but there is reason to believe that Democrats may be voting absentee in higher numbers this year. Since 2000, officials in the state have been encouraging absentee and early voting methods as a way to reduce Election Day chaos, and many voters concerned about the possible dangers of paperless touch-screen systems may have chosen to vote on the paper-based absentee systems. In addition, many people who live primarily outside of the state but who maintain a temporary residence in Florida could have chosen to vote in the swing state, rather than in their home states, this year. The tactic was popularized earlier this year by Lawrence Caplan, an attorney who launched, a Web site that explains in detail how people who live in New York but have summer homes in Florida can legally register to cast their ballots in the Sunshine State.

In a interview on Thursday, Caplan said that he'd only received a couple complaints from Snowbirds -- the nickname given to out-of-towners who fly in to Florida when their home climates turn chilly -- who had not received their absentee ballots. But he believes the problem may be affecting many Snowbirds, especially New Yorkers, most of whom would have registered to vote in Broward County. (Fort Lauderdale is sometimes called New York's sixth burrough.)

Republicans in Broward are worried that Bush will be hurt more than Kerry by the missing ballots. Day said that she had many friends who reported being unable to vote because their ballots had not arrived. One family she knows was forced to cut short their vacation in Orlando to trek back to Broward County to go to an early voting booth. One woman that Day knows has a husband who's too weak to make it to the polls. The woman called county officials asking for advice on how the man could vote, and they told her, "Get in the car and drive him to the polls," according to Day. Democratic officials in the county, Day suggested, weren't doing enough to accommodate Republican absentee voters.

Day's worry over the missing absentee ballots was part of a litany of slights by Democrats that she relayed to Salon. In general, she said, Democratic groups -- labor unions and 527 advocacy groups such as America Coming Together and -- are invading her community and raising a ruckus. She described numerous incidents, none of which could be substantiated, of Democrats behaving badly -- Democrats yelling at Republicans waiting to vote, storming Republican offices, and one case in which a woman driving to the polls in a car adorned with a Bush-Cheney bumper sticker was surrounded by opponents and forced to leave.

Day's anecdotes are consistent with other incidents Republicans have been reporting in the state and around the country. On Oct. 5, a nationwide protest held by the AFL-CIO to call attention to the Bush administration's overtime pay rules seemed to get out of hand in some Florida cities, including Orlando and Tampa, where activists stormed Bush campaign offices. The Republican National Committee has also sent reporters a list of 40 incidents of burglary, "defacement or theft of supporters' lawn signs as well as broken windows, slashed tires, shots fired, bullet holes and thrown eggs at campaign offices," according to the New York Times. In a letter to the AFL-CIO president in early October, Marc Racicot, chairman of the Bush campaign, suggested that the labor organization was behind these attacks, a charge that the group denies. For the Bush campaign to "link these overtime protests to such events as shootings in windows and break-ins is outrageous and deeply offensive," the group said in a statement.

There is also no shortage of reports of Republican efforts to harass Democrats trying to vote. Bobbie Brinegar, president of the nonpartisan Miami-Dade League of Women Voters, says that her group has received numerous complaints of Republicans bothering Democrats at the polls, not the other way around. Republicans seem to have focused on minorities, she said. Media reports have singled out Republican attempts to prevent translators from helping Haitian voters, for instance.

Despite these efforts, though, it's the Republicans who've been more vocal about their opponents' alleged attempts to hurt Republicans at the polls. Ed Gillespie, the RNC chairman, routinely accuses Democrats in Florida of trying to scare people out of early voting lines. And on Thursday, the Republican Party of Florida sent reporters a mysterious fax it said it received from an anonymous person; according to the party, the fax provided credible evidence of an ongoing plot by ACORN, a progressive advocacy group that has registered more than 200,000 new minority voters in Florida this year, to disrupt Florida's elections.

In reality, the fax (PDF) was anything but credible. Written in third-grade prose by someone who clearly didn't have much respect for Democrats, let alone for minorities, it was filled with trumped-up charges and provided no evidence for its outlandish claims. The writer claimed to have infiltrated ACORN, and he'd discovered, he wrote, that "these are the most repugnant sub-humans that I have ever encountered, and they are hell bent on fraudulently stealing this election for John Kerry." The fax went on to allege that ACORN had engaged in absentee ballot fraud and had stolen South Dakota's 2002 Senate race, and it was planning to disrupt voting in Florida on Election Day this year by blocking up polling places with people who would take an especially long time at voting booths. ACORN representatives called these charges laughable -- the group hasn't worked in South Dakota since the 1970s, it's not working with absentee ballots, and it has never engaged in any effort to keep people away from the polls, they said.

But Mindy Tucker Fletcher, a spokeswoman for the Florida Republicans, defended the party's dissemination of the fax because it was consistent, she said, with "rumors" of wrongdoing she'd heard ACORN was planning. What was curious about Fletcher's defense was that, just the day before, she had excoriated Democrats for spreading what she'd called unsubstantiated stories that Republicans planned to challenge voters at the polls in Florida. Now, though, she was saying that passing out a rumor was OK.

This is how it is in Florida now, this last week of what everyone agrees is an exceedingly ugly campaign. People are trying to kill each other here -- an attack on Katherine Harris, another on a Kerry supporter who made the mistake of taunting a Bush supporter. Earlier this week, when 18-year-old Steven Soper of Boynton Beach, Fla., failed to convince his girlfriend to vote for Bush, he put a screwdriver to her throat and threatened her life. "You won't live to see the next election," he told her, according to the report she filed with police.

Here's hoping we don't see any more death threats in the coming days.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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2004 Elections