The Ground War

Hanging with the Florida troops out to win—and keep—a Kerry victory

 FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA—This state has long been the new California. Once upon a time, it was the sunny West Coast that was known as the source of America's oddities, but that distinction has since decamped, along with the bulk of the country's crazies, for Florida. If something strange happens, Florida's the likely location. Elián, Shark Summer, Mohammed Atta's suburban suicide preparation, the Raelian cult's announcement (never proved) that they'd birthed a human clone named Eve—today's theater of the bizarre tends to take the stage in the Sunshine State. There's even a family down there that decided to be the first nuclear unit subdurally chipped with radio-frequency GPS transmitters. The 2000 election, then, was no surprise: When Florida played host to the country's first constitutional crisis to leave the country without a president-elect, the fiasco just added a crowning feather in the state's wildly plumed cap.

And it may be adding another one soon. Eerily, the 2004 election is shaping up as a potential repeat of 2000. With the wounds of the recount fresh in many minds, and the country even more polarized by Bush's aggressively partisan presidency, both parties have mounted massive efforts to capture Florida. The Republicans want to keep the state red, maybe even deepen the shade with an actual margin. Democrats are eager for payback. Polls shows a tight race nationally, and an even tighter one in Florida—dead even, in fact, at 46 percent in the most recent St. Petersburg Times survey.

That divide hides the deeper complexity of Florida politics. Unlike some of the heartland swing states, Florida is a diverse patchwork of demographics, each with its own pet voting issues. Older Cuban immigrants still haven't forgiven Kennedy for the Bay of Pigs, while their younger relatives and offspring are steadily moderating. The 150-mile Atlantic coast megalopolis stretching northward from Miami is an archipelago of independent suburbanites and Jewish retirees, traditional Democrats emotionally responsive to terror as an issue because of Israel. On the Gulf side are retirees from the Midwest, making Naples solid Bush country. The far north is south, culturally, with the panhandle being more like Mississippi than Miami. And the center is, well, the center, with a rough split between Bush and Gore in 2000.

In this environment, the key to Florida's electoral outcome will be turnout—mobilization for Kerry, and suppression for Bush. Democrats have poured resources into the peninsula, lured by those surprisingly competitive polling figures and a party of swollen ranks and renewed vigor that is, in the words of one local canvasser, "ready to roll." Republicans are also on the move, but not only to get voters to the polls; their main focus, rather, has been to head off the Democratic base at the pass. They've fought tooth and nail against the Democrats' surge of new registrations. Glenda Hood, Florida's current secretary of state and Jeb Bush's appointed successor to Katherine Harris, played along, helping to make it as hard as possible for the rising tide of new voters to cast their ballot.

What cannot be swayed can perhaps be stolen. The RNC, as we have seen in Oregon and Nevada, doesn't mind hiring subcontractors who throw away voter registrations filled out by Democrats. In Florida, it has tried to invoke various regulations—some quite arcane, like the requirement in Broward county for the form to be on 80-pound paper—to have thousands of registrations officially discarded. For Democrats who do make the rolls, there awaits a host of tactics to suppress turnout on Election Day. And that's before one even considers the specter of the new touch-screen voting machines installed since the last election. With none of these machines generating a paper record, and widespread concern about the security of the votes as computer scientists continually show the ease of putting an electronic thumb on the scales, the next hurricane to hit Florida could be called Diebold, or Sequoia, or Electronic Systems and Software. They're gonna steal Florida again! is the fretful refrain from Democrats. "They may try," said Marty Markowitz, an organizer with America Coming Together, adding with great oomph, "But we're going to win anyway."

Larry Davis is with the Kerry-Edwards legal team preparing for the Republican offensive. "They do have a lot of tricks up their sleeve," worried Davis, who's heading up the 600-attorney contingent for Broward County—the largest repository of Democratic voters in the state and the epicenter of the recount. We were at Le Tub, a rustic local eatery in Hollywood, Florida, that sits on the intercoastal waterway. It was moist out, and at 10 p.m. still near 80 degrees. The place, made of logs and lit by lanterns, looks like Tom Sawyer's Island. While we ate, a huge pleasure boat with a dining room, dance hall and living palm trees planted on the roof motored slowly past.

Davis, who was caught up in the 36-day-long tempest of the recount, laid out the prongs of this year's Republican suppression strategy. "First was the felon list," he said, referring to the list of 47,000 people to be disqualified for voter registration that was compiled by Secretary of State Hood's office. Kept secret at first, the list was made public by a court order, and was quickly discovered to be rife with errors. Moreover, almost none of the names were Latino, who trend more Republican in Florida, while half the list was African-American. This helped make it lopsidedly Democratic by a 3-to-1 margin. "Luckily, that was caught early. Now there's the provisional ballots."

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