The county's canvassing board agreed to the recount after having been bullied by West's camp into exceeding its legal authority and retabulating thousands of votes for which there was no evidence of error. In a rich bit of irony, the extra effort caused the tabulation to run late, busting legal deadlines and threatening to invalidate the result.
The location of yesterday's events, the Orange Blossom Mall, an abandoned shopping complex where the St. Lucie supervisor of elections has its offices, was a fine metaphor for the election's context: a nation whose broken-down consumer economy is propped up by government intervention.
Neither West nor Murphy was on-site, but the two candidates' staffs, legal teams, and supporters lingered in empty corridors or traipsed room-to-glass-walled-room (where retail outlets had once struggled and died) looking in on elections officials at their tasks. Literal and figurative transparency -- for the most part.
Allen West's suburban commandos made up the largest civilian presence, a swath of middle-class America, some in motorcycle gear, most in supermarket-checkout-line couture. A mustached figure prominent in the group had traded Friday's motorcycle vest with a patch reading "Everything I need to know about Islam I learned on 9-11" for a T-shirt emblazoned "The last thing going through Usama Bin Laden's mind... were Navy Seal bullets."
Ready for a lengthy siege, the Westies had set up camp in the mall's central atrium, across from the supervisor's main bank of vote-counting machines, their folding tables stocked from Dunkin' Donuts, laptops and iPads scattered about. The Murphy camp was farther down the hall, similarly arrayed but in lesser numbers, only a handful of them not staff or attorneys.
Lingering in the background throughout the day was a key observer down from Tallahassee, the chief of the state's Bureau of Voting Systems Certifications, David Drury, a mild elf of a man whose offhand comment earlier in the vote count war inadvertently gave West ammo to pressure the canvassing board to retabulate all early ballots.
A mechanical engineer, "not a policy expert," Drury sheepishly said he "was not speaking in an official capacity" when he suggested an expanded tally and that he "made that clear" at the time. Too diplomatic to say so outright, Drury clearly felt he'd been used.
The board's decision to grant West's request was vigorously -- and evasively -- defended by canvassing board chair Tod Mowery, an up-and-coming young Republican in his first term as a St. Lucie County commissioner.
"The whole early voting process was tainted," he told us with Ferris Bueller-like, go-getter energy. Mowery likes to present himself as new-breed GOP, more technocrat than partisan, and has a speaking style out of the human potential movement (or Scientology). But when pressed for evidence of error throughout the early balloting, he would say only, "I'm not getting into that debate."
To his credit, Mowery could be seen standing up to the anxious pleas of Westies going Chicken Little over every slightest step by elections office staff. "No one's overseeing the machine set-up," St. Lucie County GOP chair Bill Paterson squawked worriedly to Mowery as the day began. To which Mowery placidly replied, "These are people doing their job."
(We became a big fan of Paterson along the way, his Westoid leanings notwithstanding. "I'm a worker bee," he told us earnestly. "Not a big shot." Maybe it was sympathy for his overload of agita and the fact that for the most part, he tamped down his concerns and kept an even keel. Or maybe it was the fact that he's a dead, dead ringer for Merle Haggard, with deeply furrowed face and scraggly beard. "I get that all the time in Vegas," he told us -- though he wouldn't reveal any more of what happens in Vegas.)
Uninterrupted, and in plain view, by 10 a.m. elections workers and paired observers from the two candidates' staffs began going machine to machine among the banks of equipment, reading and noting vote totals. A noon deadline loomed, when the numbers were legally required to be certified and forwarded to the Florida Secretary of State.
The deadline was blown, though, and the partisans and politicos left in limbo when no numbers were announced, with no explanation of the delay. State law requires that the unofficial vote count stand if the local canvassing board fails to file recount results to the state Division of Elections by the deadline.
The minutes dragged on, and the Westies boiled over as 1 o'clock approached. In an ugly few minutes of mob-like conduct, they crowded in close in the space before the canvassing board's main table and chanted to officials and staff "Count our vote! Count our vote!" loudly, persistently and very much in-your-face.
This menacing behavior left West's campaign manager, Tim Edson, untroubled, even pleased. Asked if he was OK with it, Edson shrugged. "They're not interfering with anything. And I can't tell them what to do." But is this peasants-with-pitchforks approach conducive to an orderly, well-reasoned process? Would he quiet them if he could? "Why should I tell them to quiet down?" he said, his porcine features bristling. "They have every reason to be upset."
It was County Judge Kathryn Nelson who stood up to the crowd and calmed them down. Unsurprising, in that petite, steely Nelson was the sole canvassing board member to vote Friday against caving to West on the broader retabulation. "I did what I thought was legally correct," she said of her stance before the earlier day's scrum of heated Westoids. "It wasn't the popular thing to do."
The final, belated word came down at 2:10 p.m., when Mowery returned from the bowels of the supervisor's office to a hushed audience and explained that a machine failure at the tail end of the process had required a manual upload of the remaining ballots. Both candidates had picked up additional votes. Murphy added 274 and West added 32. Murphy's camp claimed victory; GOP chair Paterson cried "fraud."
Even now, though, confusion persists. Because state law dictates that since the deadline had passed, the county's election-night totals are official and the retabulation was moot. Whichever vote count stands, Murphy has the upper hand, and by a margin great enough to avoid triggering an automatic recount of all votes.
Results from the 18th Congressional District will be finalized by the state Tuesday, after which Murphy will receive a certificate of election. If West chooses, he can file a contest of election ten days after that. His most ardent supporters -- and bizarro-world politics junkies everywhere -- hope and pray he will. In a news release, campaign officials wouldn't say what they'd do except "continue to fight." (With whom, they didn't say.)
Florida statutes stipulate that to legally contest an election, the loser has to claim there was misconduct, fraud, or corruption by elections officials; that they were bribed; that the winner is ineligible for office; or that legal votes were not counted and/or illegal votes were.
West campaign manager Edson wouldn't talk -- not to us. And we don't think it's only because he'd just watched a $20-plus million campaign in his care go down the tubes.
Will West go to court again, we asked, when Edson had finished spinning the local dailies. "I don't know." Who would know? "Who you with?" New Times. "I'm familiar with it. [briskly marches away] No comment. I have no comment for New Times."
Nothing West has thrown up against the wall has stuck yet, and if he'd had any actual evidence of actual fraud or misconduct, he would have produced it. Unless Gov.
Evil Rick Scott leans a truckload of anvils on the Secretary of State's office, the St. Lucie returns will pass muster.
All that will be left to Col.Crazy at that point is the formal contest of election, and to get anywhere with that, he'd need the same thing he lacks now: proof of his alleged victimization. As usual with Allen West, there's no there there.
Fire Ant -- an invasive species, tinged dark red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite -- covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact email@example.com.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!