Tsunami Ahead

Nervous About Voting

Less than a month away, the presidential election looms off the coast of South Florida like a seasonal storm, one of those buzz-saw conflagrations that television weathermen track on their display maps. Yes, it's a red, flaming buzz saw coming this way.

Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes likes the hurricane image. "Or maybe a tsunami would be better," she said the other day. "It's big, it's boiling, it's rolling."

She's talking here not about big-hearted Florida voters, brimming with passion for their respective candidates but about logistics. The expected outpouring of voter fervor comes with county poll workers running machines that are barely out of mothballs. The county's 1,242 new ES&S optical scanners have been rolled out once — in the August 26 state primary. But there was a turnout of barely 100,000 in that election. On November 4, more than seven times that number could show up at the polls in Broward, where the number of registered voters is fast approaching 1 million.

What are the county's polls going to look like on Election Day — snapshots of democracy in action or minibattlegrounds, with frustrated voters in open rebellion?

"Twenty-eight or 29 hours a day, we're planning and strategizing," stolidly insisted Snipes, possibly the most popular Broward elected official (she got about 85 percent of the vote in the August primary, more than any other candidate), though we'll see what voters say November 5. There have already been minor gaffes, like the balky scanners that wouldn't accept ballots during the primary.

In Palm Beach County, which uses similar voting machines, a close contest for a judgeship forced a series of recounts, with the losing candidate claiming there was "machine error."

Tailpipe ran into the county's top election official at the opening last Thursday of an exhibition at the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, "Cast Your Ballot: Elections in Fort Lauderdale."

The 'Pipe wanted to see how the exhibition would handle such embarrassingly memorable election-related items as the infamous "hanging chads" of 2000. To curator Margo Edwards' credit, the chads are there — a little pile of them, like pencil shavings, under glass, with a note explaining how "hanging," "pregnant," and "dimpled" chads had lethally complicated the count in the Bush-Gore contest.

Other election-related mishaps are represented too, though not in a lot of detail. There's a copy of the infamous "butterfly ballot" from Palm Beach County that had unwary pro-Al Gore voters voting in big numbers for Pat Buchanan. There are front pages of the Miami Herald, including the banner headline: "Bush Suspends Oliphant" — a reference to former Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant, who was kicked out of office by Gov. Jeb Bush after, as the exhibition notes, "accusations of mismanagement and incompetence [arising] from a problematic 2002 primary election."

Going further back, there are 1930 receipts for poll taxes — $1 for the privilege of voting. The poll tax, used to keep the rabble (think: black people) away from the polls, was repealed in Florida in 1937.

Snipes stood pensively in front of a portable voting table that holds one of the notorious touch-screen iVotronics machines. Before it was replaced this year, the iVotronics was known for such erratic behavior as counting backward, registering votes for the wrong candidates, and erasing votes, all without leaving a paper record.

"There it is," Snipes said, touching it.

"Your old pal?" Tailpipe asked.

"Well, to tell you the truth, I've used it more than any paper ballots," she said. In fact, there's still one iVotronics in each of the county's 779 precincts, for use by the disabled.

The exhibition — with its historic lawn signs and bumper stickers, photographs of old-time politicians and officials, its obsolete voting equipment — certainly doesn't resonate like something the Museum of Art might have cooked up down the street ("King Tut," maybe). But it sneaks up on you.

One of the people who spilled over into the space from an art exhibition downstairs was painter Marilyn Johansen, who recalled voting in 2000 in Fort Lauderdale. "I put the ballot into the machine, and it didn't fit right," she said (a common complaint that day, related to inferior paper stock that was used for the ballot punch cards, creating all the chad problems). "I don't know who I voted for that day. But I learned my lesson."

Which was?

"I didn't speak up. Now, if I feel something's not right, I'm going to speak up."

Tailpipe has his fingers crossed that all the people prepared to speak up now don't amount to a cacophonous tsunami, turning an admirable exercise in democracy into another display is some future gallery of Broward voting atrocities.

Dead Ducks

First, she noticed a duck failing to respond when she called to him. Then a mallard struggled to breathe. Then she found the bodies — sometimes two or three at a time. Tanya Payne, a retired nurse who lives in Coconut Creek, is known around the neighborhood as "the duck lady." She's seen at least 20 Muscovy ducks from the local colony die in the past two months.

They all die in the same way: They stop eating and make a horrible wheezing sound as they breathe. They have problems swimming. Then paralysis and death. Payne thought someone was poisoning the ducks.

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