Barack Obama wins -- and So Does South Florida

It's a victory just to have an election pass without a local embarrassment

Finally, we’re not the laughingstock of the nation.

First came 2000, when the world blamed us for W. Then came ’04, when the nation wondered why South Florida can’t seem to run an election better than, say, Iraq.

But now the votes have been counted, and aside from a few glitches, polling places in Broward and Palm Beach counties seem to have shed the label of the Worst Place to Vote in America. Instead of failing to count them all, we helped the nation pick President Barack Obama -- and we did it without anyone wondering what the hell’s going on in Florida.

Yay, us.

Just in case, our correspondents fanned out across South Florida on Tuesday. We didn’t find the catastrophe that was expected, but what we found were stories about voting -- about voting when it actually counts.

Election Night in West Palm: Chicken Wings to Hot Dog Buns

5 p.m. – Outside of the polling station at the library on Clematis Street:An elections clerk who gave his name only as Donald said almost every one of the 871 voters assigned to his precinct had voted already. Donald said that after the polls closed, he intended to put all the ballots “in a big box, lock it up, and take it to a meeting place. The meeting place is top secret. They don’t want me getting vandalized or anything, so I don’t even know which office I have to bring it to yet. I have to call.” He added that a Republican and a Democrat are required to drive the ballots together. After working 14 hours, he said, he wanted only to relax with a Budweiser. “I hope my wife don’t want no nookie-nookie. I don’t have the energy for that.”

6 p.m. – Allen Mergaman of the Palm Beach Coalition for Election Reform (a nonpartisan watchdog group):Mergaman was worried about counting absentee and provisional ballots. “The optical scanners at the polling places – those are good,” he said. But the high-speed tabulators used to count absentee ballots? “In a test, those counted only 73 or 74 of 500 ballots.” The machines were supersensitive to folds in the paper, Mergaman said, and there had been instances of the machines counting backward once they reached 70,000. Mergaman had alerted lawyers for both campaigns and was leaving it in their hands. He was off to an election watch party.

7:15 p.m. – At the Obama campaign office:About 50 volunteers crammed themselves into the small office. Men rolled in a giant-screen TV, and a volunteer passed around a collection basket saying, “We need soda, we need liquor, we need chicken wings!” Lewis Berman, a retired journalist and economic consultant, called the excitement “like a nightclub.” Matt Miller, who has been volunteering for three months since attending “Camp Obama” training in New York, said the election “was all I’ve been thinking of for two years straight. What am I gonna talk about after tomorrow?”

7:45 p.m. – At the corner of Okeechobee Boulevard and Military Trail: About 50 Obama supporters took over the street corners yelling,“Yes we can, and yes we did!” Four boys from a dance crew called Maskuline were breakdancing and had invented an Obama dance. A cop driving by teased the young crowd when he asked over the megaphone, “Isn’t it a school night?” The kids rubbed their chins – they hadn’t decided whether to declare themselves a holiday tomorrow or not.

9:15 p.m. – at the Little Owl saloon in Lake Worth: Cara Jennings, an incumbent and the highest-ranking member of the Green Party to hold office in Florida, watched returns that showed she would hang on to her Lake Worth City Council seat. Jennings – who has roots in left-leaning activist movements and has in the past called herself an anarchist – hinted that she would not run again and begged others to start grooming themselves for office: “I really do want to be a radical, so I cannot be in office all the time!”

11:30 p.m. – at the Hampton Inn in Deerfield Beach:Several Democratic groups had met to watch the news. The crowd roared when CNN called the election for Obama, and when John McCain gave his concession speech, everyone gathered waved goodbye and said “Thank you” to Sarah Palin. A drunk guy in the back of the room kept yelling “You can do eet!” until he switched his refrain to “Get it done, get it done, like a hot dog bun.”

-- Deirdra Funcheon

Chefs (and Kooks) for McCain/Palin

If you were looking north on Federal late on Tuesday afternoon, you saw a swarm of McCain supporters waving signs and American flags, cheering to passing traffic, blowing air horns, shouting politics out of a combination of bullhorns. They gathered by a Target parking lot at the corner of Oakland Park Boulevard and U.S. 1. Across the street, a smaller group of Obama supporters countered them with homemade signs and bullhorns of their own.

On the right side, near a little boy holding a sign reading “Obama Baby Killer,” Nancy Rabinowitz yelled out to the nearby Obama camp, “He’s not ready for the three-o’clock call! He’s not ready!” A Brazilian native who married into a Jewish family in South Florida, Rabinowitz says she used to be a Hillary Clinton supporter, but she couldn’t stay with the Democratic party. “He wants to take our guns; he’s pro-abortion; he never had a real job,” she says of Obama.

Other McCain signs read: “Jesus 4 McCain,” “Keep the Change,” “Vote McCain not Hussein.” A woman in a red pants suit and gold heels flashed a sign reading, “Welfare Recipients for Obama – Spread the Wealth.” After about half an hour holding the sign, the woman in red told her fellow McCain supporters that she was taking a break and would be found at the Blue Martini.

John Kivlon says he’s been at this corner every day for the last three weeks, “except Friday -- can’t forget about happy hour.” Kivlon explained that the group picked out this corner to rally at because of the high traffic and location in a highly Democratic area. He says it’s sometimes hard to tell if passersby are honking at his group in support or opposition. A series of fast, peppy honks normally means someone feels the same way. Those normally come with a smile and wave. A prolonged honk, he explains, is generally angry, and sometimes followed by a middle finger or thumbs down. “We get a lot of trash and coffee thrown at us too,” Kivlon says.

Craig DeVescovi was showing fellow Republicans the collection of Sarah Palin trading cards he’s assembled from eBay. He says he proudly paid $32 for one card alone, and more than $50 for his favorite three cards. “I can’t wait until tomorrow to find out how much they’re worth,” he says, though he isn’t sure if a victory will increase or decrease the Palin card value. A cook at IKEA, DeVescovi also held a green sign saying “Chefs for McCain/Palin.”

Shortly after 6:00 p.m., a BSO deputy arrived when the McCain group had spread across the street, near the shrinking Obama crowd. Danielle Ruggieri, an 18-year-old McCain supporter says an Obama supporter grabbed her arm and twisted after she crossed the street to get closer to the opposition. An Obama supporter called 911 when the scuffle occurred. When the deputy showed up, he separated the groups, sending McCain supporters back to the right side of the street, signs and all. Ruggieri was disturbed by the incident, tearing up as she recounted the events back on the McCain side of the intersection. She says she’s had good, civil debates with Obama supporters. "People mostly like him because he can talk,” she says. "But when people hear he wants to raise taxes and kill babies, they’re like ‘whoa!’” If McCain loses, Danielle explains, “it won’t be horrible until people realize [Obama] can’t do much more than talk.” A teenaged friend chimes in: “it won’t be bad until January 1st, when he takes office.”

-- Michael J. Mooney

Breezin' Through the Vote

I was one of about 500 people who showed up to vote Tuesday morning at a tennis center in Fort Lauderdale’s George English Park. All of us, I think, had watched with tolerant amusement as early voters waited though five- and six-hour delays at early voting sites.

Not for me, I told my antsy friends – all the folks who just had to get their ballots in ahead of time to avoid the expected mother of all Election Day jam-ups. “Election Day is going to be a 30-minute walk-through,” I said.

Many of the tennis center voters, looking at one another in disbelief, had apparently thought the same. Now, here we all were in a long line, creeping step by step toward the voting place. But I learned a lot. I learned from an exterminator how he and his colleagues are getting rid of massive infestation of ficus plants by white flies (“Though I gotta say, it’s been great for business”). Learned which pre-schools are hot and which are not. Learned, from a golden-aged couple, how boys are easier to raise than girls despite rumors to the contrary. Wondered why I wasn’t getting rich by bringing in a coffee cart for all these idle people.

Finally, an hour and a half later, my vote was in. All in all, not bad. A lot better than my friend from Cooper City, who got to his polling place at 9:30 a.m. Sunday and finally voted at 3:15 p.m.

But then I talked to New Times columnist Bob Norman, who walked right into his voting place, no lines, no waits, at 2 p.m. “Remember it next time,” Norman said. “You have to hit the post-punch lull.”

That would be a little before the after-work tidal wave.

-- Edmund Newton

Election? What election?

The Seminole Casino is the older, smoke-filled joint across the street from Hard Rock. When a slot or poker player is in the zone, it seems like gambling is his only care in the world. Not even one of the most exciting presidential elections in history could tear him away from the casino, right?

Don’t wager on it. Of the half-dozen or so gamblers I approached on Election Day at the Seminole Casino, all but one had picked a horse in the race. They spoke semi-excitedly about their “sure-bet,” Barack Obama.

“We need change,” a middle-aged white woman from Davie said. “I never saw so many black people voting before,” she added before lunging to slip her frequent-player card into a suddenly vacant slot machine. No way is she going to lose a hot machine over some political small talk.

A middle-aged black man sitting near the poker tables said he voted early on Friday out of fear that he’d be prevented from casting a ballot on Election Day. Better to catch any glitches early, he figured. But those two hours and 45 minutes standing in line sure were tough. As he wearied, a 70-year-old black lady behind him in the early-voting line wagged her finger at him and lectured: “Our people before us had to go through a lot worse than this. So you just hold on.” He did. Now he gets to slide into a seat at the no-limits poker table.

A young black man said he headed to vote at 5:30 a.m. so he wouldn’t miss a poker promotion called Aces Cracked. I asked how long he waited.

“I’m stillwaiting.”

“To vote?”

“Nooo, for a poker table.”

OK, so maybe, for these folks, a thrilling presidential race can’t compete after all with the enticement of poker bonuses and free spins on slot machines lit up like carnival rides.

-- Amy Guthrie

Report From McCain's Broward Victory Center

Around 2 on Tuesday afternoon, John McCain is losing by several precious points in the polls. He positively can't afford to lose Florida. And an old acquaintance he probably doesn't remember, Henry Navarra, won't let him.

"We're doing more calls out of this office than any office in the whole goddamned state!" beams Navarra, greeting a reporter at McCain's "Broward Victory Center” at a strip mall on Sample Road near University Drive. "We're up to 77,000 calls, not including today," adds Navarra, as volunteers chatter on the office's 25 phone lines. Navarra’s wife and son man two of those phones.

Navarra, of Coral Springs, was 15 when he met McCain through a relative who worked as a Vietnam veterans liaison officer. His navy-blue McCain-Palin T-shirt is covered in campaign flair. "I Am Joe," says one pin, a reference to Joe the Plumber. A sticker on his left shoulder says simply "Joe." On his chest, it says "Go West" for Allen West, the congressional underdog against Ron Klein. "Fight With Me," says another pin on his chest, over a McCain-Palin logo.

"Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach are all Democratic counties," says Navarra. "But if we can pull 50/50, the rest of the state is majority Republican, so we'll win the state."

He has seen a surge in volunteer interest the past month, and Navarra claims to not be anxious about the polls. "Now you'll see that, on Election Day, older voters -- and I won't say more intelligent voters -- will show up at the polls. More of them will vote McCain." If young voters favor Obama, Navarra says it's because "the youth believes what they see on TV, and they're so easily manipulated: 'He looks good and he speaks good, and so he must be the one for us.'"

Navarra says a group of about 15 is waving McCain-Palin campaign signs at passing motorists nearby at the northwest corner of Sample and University. "They've been getting about 50/50 as far as honks versus middle fingers," reports Navarra. "That tells me, you know what? We're going to do well."

On the northeast corner of the same intersection, Obama volunteers are waving their signs. In a 45 mph zone, it can be hard to tell who the honk is for and who is the object of the obscene gesture.

The difference between the two groups' makeup is striking. The Obama activists are black and white. McCain's are all white. "This isn't really a race issue," says Navarra. "Allen West is dark as midnight, and we all support him. He's a gentleman, and he's well-spoken."

The way Navarra figures it, he has cemented 50 votes for McCain at a minimum. That's because whenever a registered Republican has complained to him about the cost of sending in his absentee ballot, Navarra has mailed a postage-paid envelope to that voter.

He knows that even if McCain is behind by only several points in national polls, he's way behind in projected electoral votes. And this year, Florida is not a swing state. It mustgo Republican, and at best it's a coin toss.

"If it goes the wrong way, I'll take it like a man," says Navarra. "I might move to Canada, but I'll take it like a man."

-- Thomas Francis

We See It, But We Don't Believe It: Placid Polls

Given Florida's penchant for pandemonium at the polls and the unprecedented turnout during early voting, we were expecting rabid voting-card-armed mobs attacking our libraries, schools, and churches today. Instead, we've encountered what everybody but a reporter wants to see on Election Day: calm and order.

At 1:36 this afternoon, the polling place at Sunny Isles Beach was the most packed I saw, with about 100 people in line. "They say it's going to take me two hours," said Betty Barrett, the last in line. "It doesn't matter. I'll be damned if I don't vote because of that."

From there, I checked out polling sites in Surfside, Miami Beach at Collins and 75th, Normandy Shores, and North Miami and found the same thing everywhere: metaphorical tumbleweeds. The scene at the little library on 75th and Collins was especially surprising because when I voted early there, the place had all the serenity of a Mexico City bus depot. It was packed to the gills, seemingly everybody was finding problems with their registration, and the poll workers looked overwhelmed by it all. But at 2:15 this afternoon, the scene resembled a doctor's office, with only a dozen people waiting, most of them sitting in chairs. "Everybody already did their thing," said a chatty Miami-Dade line wrangler with no line to be wrangled. "It was busy until around 12:30."

Not that that polling center was without some contention: specifically, two guys standing on the corner of 75th with a "Communists for Obama" sign. "McCain's going to take Florida," declared Jordan Katz. "Obama supporters are very vocal, but there's a silent majority that's going to swing this the other way, and there's going to be a lot of surprised people across the country."

Meanwhile, a man waved an Obama sign across the street, and whenever cars streamed by, the two minicamps would try to outscream each other. "This guy's stupid enough to think I'm on his side," said Dave Crystal, referring to his "Communists" sign. "He doesn't realize that my sign is facetious. A lot of these Obama idiots are like that."

For his part, Obama supporter Terry Carpenter rose above the back-and-forth. "I'm not yelling at them," he said. "I'm just yelling."

Carpenter had never been so passionate about an election before, he said, but this year, something changed: "I'm over it, is all. I'm over the war and the recession and George Bush and discrimination against gays. I'm over all of it."

-- Gus Garcia-Roberts

Things Are Better in Greenacres

“This is the way it’s supposed to go.”

It’s the recurring refrain from voters leaving Diamond View Elementary on November 4. Except for a brief flurry at 7 a.m., there is no waiting in line at this Greenacres polling station – the pace of Election Day is eerily sedate. Poll workers set up markers to keep campaigners 100 feet from the doors, but not a single sign-toting McCainite or Obamafan shows up, not a single exit-poll taker, not a news reporter, not an ACLU lawyer. No fights break out – and the school’s pretty principal wouldn’t brook that kind of nonsense anyway: She stands at the door calling “Hurry up, my friend!” to the last, late straggling 6-year-olds in their pleated skirts and pink backpacks.

Voters park their cars and stroll freely to the polls set up in the school library among the biographies of Abraham Lincoln, The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, and the Easy Readerprimers. Greenacres residents mosey through a lobby floored with a checkerboard of primary colors, past “Responsibility Street” and “Champs Boulevard, ” past a framed photo of Dr. Maya Angelou and under a banner proclaiming “We’re a Grade A School!” If they arrive around 2 p.m., they have to step around seated, cross-legged tykes waiting to be released to the yellow school buses parked around the corner.

Diamond View is clearly doing its damnedest to produce good citizens, the kind of people who “Walk, don’t run!” If all goes according to plan, they’ll grow up to vote in every election. You get the feeling that there’s an invisible force-field around this schoolyard keeping chaos at bay. Fractious lines may be snaking for blocks in Georgia, New Jersey, or Chicago, but the sun is shining in Greenacres, the teachers are smiling, and the kids are learning cooperation. “How long a wait is it?” almost every voter asks at the door. And they all exit with the same bemused look: “Well, that was easy! If I knew it’d be like that, I’d vote more often.”

-- Gail Shepherd

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