The Ground War

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

"That was really the basis of our case," explained Ellen McLaren, a legislative aide for local Congressman Robert Wexler, who unsuccessfully brought a federal case against the counties employing the machines. "There's no paper trail." She explained how Florida's election law requires a manual recount if the result is within a certain margin. "But with these machines," she said, "a manual recount is not possible." She also noted, very reasonably, that as with any new technology, it seems like a good idea to make sure it's foolproof—especially before installing it at the core of our democratic process.

And at the moment, they're not foolproof. Avi Rubin is the computer-science professor at Johns Hopkins who first publicized security flaws in Diebold's code, and he has since looked at other models and only become less confident in the machines' reliability. "A big concern," he explained, "is that they could be rigged. Manufacturers could set the outcome. Or election workers. Any time there's physical access to the machine, there's the potential to change it." With Diebold's machines, Rubin noted as an example, he and his students discovered that a quick, one-byte alteration in a particular file could switch votes from one candidate to another. "Ironically," he said, "in trying to get rid of the hanging chads, they've gotten rid of ballots altogether."

Theresa LePore regretfully acknowledged this irony as well. LePore is the Palm Beach County supervisor of elections who designed the infamous butterfly ballot that confused my grandparents' bridge partners into voting for Pat Buchanan, and she has since attracted another round of controversy for installing 4,500 Sequoia machines into her 692 voting precincts. LePore has become a local villain, perhaps unfairly. Whenever I mention the name around Florida Democrats, they start hissing like vampires around garlic.

She's been accused of treason for putting the wrong man in the White House, despite the fact that both parties approved her butterfly ballot. And the Sequoia machines were partly an overcompensation for that experience. "We were trying to fix the problems of 2000," she said ruefully. But like other election officials, she refuses to accept that there are valid concerns with touch-screen voting. That kind of obstinacy is what's contributing to the looming uncertainty of the upcoming election. "The one thing we're going to learn in Florida," professor Rubin observed, "is that this technology will leave doubt. It's as simple as that."

Lawanda Joseph has no doubts. "If we get out the vote," she said as I caught up with her leaving the Clinton rally, "Kerry will win Florida." Joseph is one small part of the monumental effort to provide a margin for Kerry that no amount of chicanery could close. "And we are," she said. "I mean, Hillary came down to the hood to get the people to the polls!" Joseph has been to many other rallies, already voted, told her friends to follow suit, and canvassed on her own in the poorest black neighborhoods off of Sistrunk Avenue, looking for single women to motivate. Democrats may be worried but they're not daunted. "We remember what happened," Joseph said, "and we're ready this time."

It was the same message—don't get mad; get even—delivered by Al Gore two days later at Broward Community College. He'd already been up in Jacksonville and Tallahassee, encouraging enthusiastic crowds to vote, creating a crush of people at each city's single polling station. "The time to vote is today," he said. "That way there will be plenty of time for them to count it." Not far from the stage were the doors leading to one of Broward's early-voting stations. The wait inside was an hour and a half.

This has been the experience in Democratic counties all over Florida. The campaign, as well as independent progressive groups like America Coming Together (ACT), have been extremely successful at generating a swell of early voters and absentee-ballot requests. In Broward County alone, 147,000 absentee ballots were mailed out, and 65,000 people showed up at the polls within the first week of early voting.

"The response is overwhelming," Marty Markowitz, the organizer with ACT, said. "It's like my dream came true to be part of this groundswell." Markowitz is spending his days lathered in Kerry loyalists, but the energy he talks about does seem palpable on the streets. The very first person I saw upon leaving the Fort Lauderdale airport was holding a Kerry sign, and it's been Kerry on the streets ever since. It's impossible not to run into people with Kerry pins, or even a whole Kerry event. In the entire time I've been here, however, I've seen only a single Bush-Cheney supporter, and she looked pretty lonely. On Sunday, I counted 14 Kerry bumper stickers on the Florida Turnpike between Lauderhill and Green Acres, and not a one for Bush.

But who needs anecdotes, when you have data? Over at ACT's massive Broward offices, I saw how the group has been systematically identifying and assessing Kerry support for months, and its efforts have been more successful than anticipated. ACT may be living up to its billing as the largest voter mobilization in history; by November 2, the group will have spent $125 million, which dwarfs, by a factor of 10, the DNC's get-out-the-vote funding in 2000.

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