By Michael E. Miller
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Gerlyn Cadet is a driver in the ground war, and he has the feeling his side is going to win. It is Election Day, and the word in Broward County is that people are coming out in record numbers to vote for Vice President Al Gore.
Not all the news on this warm and sunny day is good for Democrats, though. Cadet, a Haitian immigrant, hoped to be driving stranded voters to the polls. Instead he's driving Gloria Jackson around town, and she is trying to deal with some serious voting problems. A former chairwoman for Broward's Democratic Party, Jackson is supervising the party's headquarters in the predominantly black town of Lauderdale Lakes. The office has been barraged with complaints that voters -- many of them Haitians -- are being turned away from the polls because their names aren't listed on the rolls. When precinct workers call the elections office to confirm registrations with the master voter list, they can't get through. All the phone lines are jammed.
"A lot of black folk are being turned around at the polls," Jackson says from the passenger's seat of Cadet's Toyota RAV4. "What we're going to try and do is get a special phone line opened up so we can get through to the elections office."
Cadet is dressed casually in a black baseball cap and a black golf shirt. His manner is as easy as his dress. He seems perfectly suited for his chauffeur's role, perhaps because he drives a taxi for a living. He's 39 years old, but his almost boyish face, with a wisp of neatly trimmed mustache, could easily pass for ten years younger. His youthfulness can, in part, be attributed to the fact that he's a family man, a devoted father who doesn't drink or smoke and who tries to play his favorite sport, soccer, at least once a week.
Cadet's almost preternatural calm, however, is only a veneer. A political fire burns in his belly, though it can't be seen as he drives his little sport-utility vehicle south on Andrews Avenue while Jackson talks about the presidential election.
"Florida determines who will win the nation, and Broward County will determine Florida," she says presciently. "Broward County is the key to everything. If we can turn over 180,000 votes in this county for Gore, he will win. I know I won't be sleeping tonight."
Soon the conversation turns to Cadet's homeland.
"Haiti is where a lot of great things started happening for black folk," Jackson declares.
"Yes, Haiti was the first that said no to slavery," Cadet agrees in a Creole-accented voice that is soft and melodic. "It was 1804. The slaves want to send a message to each other, they sing it so the slave master won't understand what they gonna do."
The problems Haitians are having on this Election Day seem rather insignificant in comparison to that epic struggle. But still the complaints from voters indicate that Haitians feel their right to vote is being taken away, says Jackson. "The problem at the polls is, if there is nobody there who speaks their language, who is going to help them?" she asks.
The answer is nobody, according to numerous Haitian and African-American leaders, including NAACP president Kweisi Mfume. They say Haitian immigrants, many of whom speak little English, were lost in the shuffle during this election, turned away from the polls, confused by the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County, and given no help when they asked questions of poll workers. While the extent of some of the problems has surely been inflated because of the closeness of the race and the ensuing flurry of Democratic political muckraking, little doubt exists that Haitians, an ever-growing group in terms of political power and sheer numbers in South Florida, were disenfranchised from the presidential contest in large numbers. Perhaps even in numbers large enough to have changed the result of this presidential election -- which many Haitians expected to be their coming-out party in American politics.
The general problems Haitians encountered at South Florida polls have been widely reported in the past couple of weeks. Untold are the stories of the people themselves, people who cherish the right to vote in ways many Americans can't comprehend. They grew up under the thumb of a corrupt dictator, and their country suffered fablelike calamities as a result. Tyranny drove politics into their bones, and coming to America did not sap their political fervor. The Haitian community's number one political concern now, for instance, is staying in America. Many believe, rightly or wrongly, that Republicans are going to deport them if Texas governor George W. Bush wins the White House.
All of this helps explain why Cadet, who supports his family on a cab driver's salary, spent many days volunteering for Gore's campaign and devoted every waking minute of Election Day to delivering votes.
That day was only the beginning of this strange presidential season, of course, and Cadet has not wavered in his enthusiasm. He was there when hundreds of Haitians took to the streets of South Florida, peacefully voicing their protests, and he was there when the Democratic lawsuits were taking shape. In this extraordinary time in history, he would stay on the front lines of this proverbial "ground zero" and witness firsthand some of the ugliness that erupts in such a high-stakes fight.