Something rotten in the state of Florida
Pregnant chads, vanishing voters... the election fiasco of 2000 made the Sunshine State a laughing stock. More importantly, it put George Bush in the White House. You'd think they'd want to get it right this time. But no, as Andrew Gumbel discovers, the democratic process is more flawed than ever
29 September 2004
Of the many weird and unsettling developments in Florida since the presidential election meltdown four years ago, none is so startling as the fact that Theresa LePore, the calamitously incompetent elections supervisor of Palm Beach County, still has her job. It was LePore who chose the notorious "butterfly ballot" - a format so confusing that it led thousands of Democrats, many of them elderly, retired Jewish people, to punch the wrong hole, giving their vote not to Al Gore, as they had intended, but to the right-wing, explicitly anti-Jewish fringe candidate Pat Buchanan.
It was LePore, too, who caused huge problems for the fraught re-count process, first by insisting on the strictest standards for determining voter intent and then, with the final deadline 72 hours away, ordering her staff to take the day off for Thanksgiving. As a result, Palm Beach County fell short of completing its manual re-count on time, and the whole process - which even under LePore's strictures had turned up an extra 180 votes for Gore - was rendered void.
Arguably, no one person did more to foul up the maddeningly close election in Florida in 2000, and no individual bears more responsibility for the fact that George Bush ended up President instead of Gore. (Without the butterfly ballot, Gore would have taken as many as 7,000 more votes and cruised past Bush's official 537-vote margin of victory.) Yet Theresa LePore will still be in charge for this November's presidential election - and things have got considerably worse in the interim.
Palm Beach isn't the only place in Florida where crazy things have happened. Officials up and down the state have behaved like drunks caught out on one bender too many. They have talked the talk of reform quite convincingly, and even lavished considerable expense on covering up their past lapses. But the bottom line is that the voting machines still don't work, political corruption and underhand campaign tactics remain rampant, and too many black and lower-income voters face daunting, often insurmountable obstacles in exercising their voting rights.
In a state that promises to be every bit as pivotal as it was last time, this is deeply worrying. And Palm Beach County shows why. After the 2000 débâcle, an unrepentant Theresa LePore was told by the state of Florida that she and her fellow election supervisors would have to replace the punchcard machines that had exposed the state to such ridicule. She flew to California, where she was quickly seduced by an electronic touchscreen voting system used in Riverside County, just east of Los Angeles.
She was told that Riverside's system had performed flawlessly in November 2000, even as she and her canvassing board had been hung up for weeks examining punchcards for dimpled, hanging or pregnant chads. But Riverside's tabulation system had in fact suffered meltdown on election night, creating the first of many controversies about the reliability and accuracy of its Sequoia Pacific machines.
Blissfully unaware of this, LePore spent $14.4m (£8m) on her own Sequoia system and unveiled it for local elections in March 2002. It seems to have fallen at the first hurdle. A former mayor of Boca Raton, Emil Danciu, was flabbergasted to finish third in a race for a seat on Boca Raton city council. A poll shortly before the election had put him 17 points ahead of his nearest rival.
Supporters told his campaign office that when they tried to touch the screen to light up his name, the machine registered the name of an opponent. Danciu also found that 15 cartridges containing the vote totals from machines in his home precinct had disappeared on election night, delaying the result. It transpired that an election worker had taken them home, in violation of the most basicprocedures. Danciu's lawyer, his daughter Charlotte, said some cartridges were then found to be empty, for reasons that have never been adequately explained.
Danciu sued for access to the Sequoia source code to see if it was flawed. He was told that the source code was considered a trade secret under Florida law, and that even LePore and her staff were not authorised to examine it, on pain of criminal prosecution. His suit was thrown out.
Two weeks later, something even stranger happened. In the town of Wellington, a run-off election for mayor was decided by just four votes - but 78 votes did not register on the machines at all. This meant - assuming for a moment that the machines were not lying - that 78 people had driven to the polls, not voted, and gone home again.
The scenario beggared belief, but it was touted, with a straight face, by LePore. Then and since, she has refused to acknowledge even the slightest flaw in the voting machines, and has resisted with all her might a growing clamour for a voter-verifiable paper trail as a back-up. "She's defended the system almost to the point where it's been ridiculous," Charlotte Danciu said. "She treated us as though we were sore losers, andas though we were imbeciles. The tenor of what she told us was that if people were too dumb to vote on electronic machines, they shouldn't be voting."
More phantom non-voters showed up in an election in Palm Beach County in January. Again, those supposedly present but not voting (137 people) greatly exceeded the margin of victory (12 votes). That persuaded a local Democrat Congressman, Robert Wexler, to sue LePore and the state of Florida to force them to adopt a paper trail. The case is pending.
Wexler went further, sponsoring a professor, Arthur Anderson, to challenge LePore for her job, putting up $90,000 of his own campaign money. The election got very strange, not least because it took on heavily partisan overtones. LePore, a registered Independent, was championed by the Republican Party as a much-maligned asset to Floridian democracy (a coded way of thanking her for her role in sending George Bush to the White House). Anderson had prominent Democrats stumping for him.
Any pretence of objective fairness was lost as each side accused the other of promoting a candidate intent on putting party before the electoral process. It was certainly odd that LePore was organising an election in which she was a prominent candidate. It was odder still when, on the August polling day, sheriff's deputies arrived at the supervisor's office and surrounded the building with squad cars and "do not cross" barriers. Such police presence at election sites is technically illegal.
The sheriff's department cited a possible terrorist threat and, according to a TV station, drew a parallel with the Madrid train bombings. The source of this threat was never identified, and the cordoning off of the supervisor's office - which was doubling as a polling station and collection point for hand-delivered absentee ballots - looked even more suspicious because a contentious sheriff's race was also conducted that day.
Sarah "Echo" Steiner, a member of the Palm Beach Coalition for Election Reform, said the place looked "like a crime scene" when she dropped off her absentee ballot. It took her a while to find the lone unmarked entrance at the back where the public could still go in, and she was worried that the police presence was a ploy to try to suppress Anderson's absentee vote count (which, given his supporters' mistrust of the electronic machines, was expected to be high).
LePore's handling of the absentee ballots was controversial from start to finish. Her design for the ballot required voters to fill in a broken arrow linking the name of the office to the candidate - a system widely expected to cause mayhem, which it duly did. She also took the unusual step of having the voter's party affiliation printed on the return envelope, opening the door for mischief by a corrupt poll-worker or mail-carrier. No other county does this.
Anderson won the election, but only just - by 51 per cent to 49. Election reformers were relieved, but suspicious. "We're talking about one of the most hated politicians in the country, and she almost wins?" said an incredulous Susan Van Houten, who chairs the voting reform coalition. "Those numbers: I just don't trust them any more."
But Palm Beach County will have to trust Theresa LePore in the presidential election, as she does not leave office until January. She believes she has been victimised and refuses to acknowledge any serious wrongdoing, much less apologise. "It's just amazing that you can do everything right for 30-plus years, and you have one, albeit not small, incident [the 2000 butterfly ballot], and you're crucified for it for ever," she said.
Arthur Anderson, who has yet to hear from LePore despite sending her flowers after the election, said: "She is just not recognising the level of mistrust among the voters. Much of it was entirely avoidable."