This is what it looks like in the voting equipment center, also known as the warehouse, in Broward County, Florida, on election night: Five rows of double three-prong outlets cased in brushed steel, a blue stepladder on wheels, five wooden shelves. One wooden shelf says, “cell phone chargers only.” There’s a chain-link cage and three American flags hang on the other side of the fence. There are 35 or 40 people in the room and more in the room beyond that, where they are cataloging and counting bags full of absentee ballots, provisional ballots, and mechanical tabulations. The room bustles with election officials, police officers, TV reporters, and associate producers from big-time New York shows.
The results flash on a digital screen, which resembles the screens at the horse track. There were 1,044 polling places in Broward County, the most Democratic county in the state. The digital lines repeat turnout numbers, percentages, ballot initiatives, and local-election results, updating every few minutes. The heavy gamblers gather around the green-and-black screen but only a handful of people understand it. The screen seems to suggest that only 60 percent of Broward County voted. Slightly more than in 2000. That number seems low. Kerry is supposed to beat Bush by 225,000 votes in Broward County, but falls 15,000 votes short of that target.
Three hours ago the internal polls had John Kerry up five points. Larry Davis, the most important Democrat in Broward (depending on who you ask), called me 15 minutes before the polls closed to say, “It’s over. We won.” I was at a polling place near Lauder Lakes when I got the call. The activists were putting their signs in their cars. Ten Bush supporters were standing in a prayer circle with their heads bowed. I was so eager for their disappointment.
The election board supervisors sit behind a large oak table. The lawyer for the Republicans is laughing. She has salt-and-pepper hair and mean, thin legs. Larry told me she is a nice lady, but I have decided not to believe him. Occasionally someone will yell “Challenge” or something like that, and the people in the room will squeeze toward the edge.
The only free space is off to the side, in the cage surrounded by outlets, below a long worktable. The bottom of the table is corrugated foam plastic. The floor is blue tile. Florida secretary of state Glenda Hood has floated a rule that the absentee ballots not be counted until Thursday. But why? The rule is quickly rescinded.
“It doesn’t look good,” Larry says. I’ve been staying with him. He lives with his wife in a single-story house in Hollywood, slightly more than walking distance from the beach. They built a screen-room addition in the backyard. Everybody has one of these out here. They’re called Florida rooms. I warn Larry about talking to one of the producers in the room who’s certain to come to him looking for a quote.
“He’s more ambitious than idealistic,” I tell him.
Near midnight Paul Hancock won’t come in the house. It’s clear George Bush is going to win. Paul lives closer to the beach than Larry. He’s got beer on tap in his backyard. His wife has put out a plate of food for everyone. Paul says he’s too nervous to sit inside. He sits on a small chair in front of a small television close to the beer tap. In 2000 Paul argued Bush v. Gore in front of the Supreme Court. In his spare time he likes to work on an old yellow Jeepster he keeps in the garage. He watches the TV closely, his dog’s leash held loosely over his thigh. The dog lies next to him, inert, paws extended, belly pressing the floor.
In the morning the air is nearly still. Neil Rogers is on the radio. “We’ve given the country to the wack jobs, the religious loonies. And you kids that are going to be drafted and killed. Remember what you did.” I take the boulevard over the bridge toward the Hollywood Beach Resort.
Hollywood Beach is like a cheap version of Fort Lauderdale, which sits 20 minutes north. The buildings on the ocean are square and made from poured concrete. Everything is gray or white. The cafés sell dollar draft beers and $2 egg specials. The bike path is lined with cheap gift stores and T-shirt shops. The hotels are all budget and mostly a block from the water. The population is older—people so wrinkled it’s enough to make you never want to go out in the sun again. Their leathery skin hangs loosely from their shoulders, gathering in folds at their waist and ankles, a one-piece bodysuit that no longer fits. It’s almost impossible to look at. They look like they’ve already had skin cancer many times and finally said, “Fuck it. I’m going to die anyway.” They are the darkest white people I have ever seen.
Men sit shoeless and shirtless in the unlit restaurants. All of the doors are open. “Welcome to Hollyweird,” the waitress tells me, running a hand over my left shoulder where I have a large tattoo. She has her own tattoos. A Sagittarius on her left thigh, among others. “You need to get this touched up,” she says. “I know somewhere you could go.” She asks if I’m carrying a Bible and I tell her it’s just a notebook.
I haven’t been swimming in so long. The water’s too cold around San Francisco and the tide too strong. I’m not a good swimmer. The water in Hollywood is just slightly cooler than the air. I kind of stand in the water, bobbing over the waves. A line of birds stare out from the edge of the beach, occasionally flying reconnaissance across the surf. The tide is low and filled with debris and small green bubbles. There’ve been clouds in the sky since I arrived in Florida a week ago but it’s only rained once. The clouds today are nearly translucent, kind of a gray blue, and beyond them the sky is as bright as a new dress. A little later my head starts to spin.
“I heard you were sick yesterday,” Larry says on Thursday morning.
“I think I got dehydrated,” I tell him.
He kind of laughs. “It was probably a mixture of things,” he says. He had to teach at the law school on Wednesday while I was lying with a wet rag over my face on Paul’s bathroom floor. Larry worked so hard. He did so much. He was in charge of 600 Democratic lawyers. In 2000, in no small part thanks to Larry, Broward was one of the few counties to finish their recount. He still remembers accepting a ballot in 2000. They were determining intent and the ballot had George Bush’s name scrawled across it. He wouldn’t accept it if he had to do it again. We sit in his backyard at the glass table. He’s wearing a white shirt and a dark tie. He has to go to court. He tells me he got a call from a friend who came out of the closet six years ago.
“What should I do?” he asked Larry. “I told him to go back in the closet,” Larry says.
“I hope he isn’t storing too many things in there,” I say. “He’s going to need the room.”
There isn’t that much for us to talk about, except how much I appreciated him letting me stay in his house. We touch briefly on the Swift Boat Veterans and other campaign issues. But the blame game doesn’t appeal. American troops will be in Fallujah within a week.
“They’re going to use the power of the government,” he says. “They’re already going after the NAACP. They’re going to go after the journalists. They’re locking up reporters from The New York Times for something Robert Novak did. There’s no silver lining.”
We sit for a while longer. Larry’s too good a person. He likes to smile. He has to go to court and he keeps pressing his palms on the chair arms to get up to leave but he doesn’t go for a while. There are moments when I think I could stay here in Florida. It’s such a slow state. You can really take your time about things here. The streets are so wide and hot. Everything is naked and ugly and obvious. Finally Larry says, “You know, yesterday, the day after the election, people were crushed and everyone was talking about dropping out or how to kill themselves. But then, after a while, the conversation turned. We started saying things like, ‘I wonder who’s going to run in 2008. Maybe Hillary/Obama?’ ” Larry shakes his head. “You can’t quit this stuff. It’s like a drug.”
Stephen Elliott is the author of Looking Forward to It or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Electoral Process (Picador). He has a blog at stephenelliott.com.