The Ground War

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

A new Florida law allows for voters to receive provisional ballots if they arrive at a polling place and there's no record of their registration. Those ballots are held, and election officials later verify the voters' eligibility. This right, which was guaranteed by the Federal Help America Vote Act of 2002, was meant to remedy some of the problems of the 2000 election, when many properly registered voters, particularly in minority areas, were turned away because they didn't appear on the rolls.

"But Florida," Davis explained, "unlike many other states, throws out provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct." It's a somewhat arbitrary regulation. Precincts move, as do people, especially in poor and minority areas, and if the voter turns out to be registered, there's no real reason to invalidate the ballot.

"But it's not just these big legal problems," said Greg Sanders, a volunteer for the Kerry-Edwards office in Broward. We were shielding ourselves from a sudden rain beneath a royal palm outside the African-American Research Library and Cultural Center where Hillary Clinton had just rallied the faithful to "go vote early, and we'll make sure it's counted." A few feet away, on a Saturday afternoon, a line of people waited to cast their ballots at early-voting stations. "There are all kinds of little tactics here and there," Sanders said, "and they're carefully planned."

"Some are supposedly 'mistakes' like the felon list," added his partner Don Martin, a full-time staffer for the campaign, "but when you add it up you can see the pattern of massive voter suppression." Martin mentioned the incident in Orlando, where the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, teamed up with state troopers, stormed the houses of elderly African-Americans who were collecting absentee ballots in their community. There's also the voter-registration forms, which some supervisors of elections were throwing out for missing a check in the citizenship box, despite the fact that the form's required signature also attests to the registrant's citizenship. "And," he added, trying to fit a Kerry sign the size of a sheet of plywood into his truck, "what about Jacksonville?"

Jacksonville is its own special anomaly in an already anomalous state. By geography, it is the largest city in the country, but the population is only half a million people. Although it's in the conservative reaches of northern Florida, Jacksonville's Duval County has the largest number of registered African-American voters. Jacksonville is where one in five black votes was thrown out in 2000, which makes Jacksonville another one of the places in Florida where you could say 2000 was lost—or stolen.

This year, as the Democrats have launched their colossal early-voting drive, Duval's supervisor of elections, a Republican, decided to open only a single polling location in Jacksonville. "And it's downtown," Martin said, "with scarce parking and construction nearby—miles away from black neighborhoods. Here in Broward County we have 14 polling locations, and there are huge lines. It's ridiculous to open one poll. It was just meant to slow down black votes."

Martin has seen this kind of soft disenfranchisement before. He was a registered election observer in 2000 at a precinct in inner-city Tampa. The Tampa–St. Petersburg area is the Gulf Coast anchor of the critical I-4 Corridor, the politically "purple" swath of territory that crosses the center of the state through Orlando and ends in Daytona. Tampa was highly contested in 2000—it was Gore's last campaign stop that Tuesday morning—and it's where Martin witnessed up close the problem of registered voters discovering once they got to the polls that their names were not on the county's rolls. Martin explained how they were directed to a second line, where a poll worker would call the Supervisor of Elections Office to confirm their registration. That line, with one phone and an inadequate staff, quickly got so long—"many, many hours long"—that people left. Martin counted 130 people who were turned away—a quarter of what became Bush's margin, and, as Martin noted, "That was just in one precinct!" It's how they operate, he explained, using implicit vote suppression that stays mostly under the radar. But this year, Martin was also worrying about the new potential for explicit vote suppression: the touch-screen voting machines.

Everyone in Florida seems terrified of these machines as the electronic Trojan Horse that will surreptitiously end American Democracy. I voted on one—a Diebold, even—in Pasadena at an early polling station, and although I wasn't thrilled, I was willing to give it the benefit of the doubt—until, that is, I casually asked the poll worker about the paper record and he dismissed the question defensively: "The machines are fine, okay—ballots don't have a paper record either."

"Except the goddamn ballot," I said with great alarm.

It was the same attitude I discovered down here: Election officials tend to ignore, rather than assuage, voters' concerns about the machines. One guy I talked to said not to worry; that the votes were stored on a hard drive. No shit—like I thought the thing was just a Fisher-Price plastic box full of marbles. The officials like to explain how the components of the system work, but the problem isn't the system; it's the lack of an independent record for verification.

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