Down For the Recount

W. Kelley Lucas

The 24 hours after Election Day 2000 were perhaps the most chaotic time in South Florida history since Hurricane Andrew struck. So, in the interest of history, Hurricane New Times hit the streets.

It's 2 p.m., and the Palm Beach County government center is the only place that matters in American politics. Two television sets in the spacious lobby are tuned to CNN and MSNBC. Sheriff's deputies watch the media swarm with slack-jawed interest while a few protestors outside raise signs: "Recount," reads one. "Watch the absentee ballots," warns another.

Twelve television crews pace restlessly. Their cameramen tape microphones to a podium where Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore is slated to appear. It was she who designed the now-infamous butterfly ballot that has become the center of the Gore-Bush maelstrom.

Everyone here wears a uniform. TV reporters are slicked up and manicured, and their crews are dressed in scruffy T-shirts and jeans. Dozens of print reporters fall into a fashion purgatory, universally low-tech, carrying six-inch­by­three-inch No. 200 notebooks and ballpoint pens; men wear loosened ties, and women carry big shoulder bags. Their photographers look like overweight refugees from a homeless shelter.

Watching the watchers is veteran political consultant Linda Hennessee, the point woman for U.S. Congressional candidate Elaine Bloom. Sitting cross-legged on a bench outside the supervisor's office, she wears gray trousers and a jacket, both wrinkled. She holds back a cough and describes LePore. "Arrogant," she mutters. "Arrogant, disorganized... She should come out here and talk to people; that's her job. If there's a problem, she should admit it. I'm worried about her ability to be forthright."

Then The Washington Post's emissary arrives. Sue Anne Pressley, the paper's Miami bureau chief, moseys up and introduces herself to Hennessee. After asking some questions, she makes a startling admission. "So I don't usually do this," she shrugs and smiles disarmingly. "I usually do pets and children...." Hennessee doesn't say much until both Pressley and the Sun-Sentinel reporter leave. Then she gets on a cell phone and tells someone that she's advising Bloom to file a court challenge if the recount shows her to be within a few hundred votes of her Republican opponent, Clay Shaw.

"If it's more than 1000 or something like that, we won't challenge it," Hennessee says quietly of her candidate's second-place finish after a recount. "But this is ridiculous" -- she nods at the swarm of confused activity -- "and if it's within a few hundred, we will definitely go to court."

Around 2:30 p.m., all along Sunrise Boulevard from Andrews Avenue to Flamingo Road, people are waiting for the real Slim Shady, Dubya or Al, to stand up as Prez. From gold-toothed cabbies to gold-card­carrying business execs, lots of folks are making similar comments about the election. "This is making Florida look bad, but it's not our fault," people say. Still, somebody pulled a fast one. Tossed ballots? Misaligned holes? Pro-choice Democrats for Buchanan for God's sake? C'mon. Fagedaboudit.

"The whole thing isn't fair because first they said Gore had Florida, then Bush, then nobody," comments Alana, an eighth grader at Plantation Middle School, whose parents, she sheepishly admits, voted for Bush. "You know Jeb is up to something."

"I'm telling you, it was a setup," says Malika, a 19-year-old nail artist. "The Republicans got word that blacks were coming out [to vote] like roaches running from a burning building!"

Only 30 feet of concrete separate the Shop-N-Save Mini Mart from Saint Pierre's Haitian botánica down the street. That's just enough space for five or six people to park their cars and run to pick up a quick love potion or a cold beer. At 2:30 p.m. Law Dog has opted for the latter. Teetering slightly to the left (it wasn't his first beer of the day; he's "in between" jobs), Law Dog stands in the parking lot, his red-rimmed eyes roaming to follow women's derrières as they move in and out of the store. He didn't vote but says it probably wouldn't have mattered anyway.

"You see the way they do," the 26-year-old Fort Lauderdale native explains. "No matter what people in this country want, the powers that be gonna work it to their advantage. That's why I ain't even registered." He sidles up to a Yellow Cab where Levelt Fontaine, a 39-year-old Haitian cabbie, sits in the driver's seat with the door open, shaking his head at his friend's remarks.

"How can you not get involved?" Fontaine asks, looking not at his friend but at the pavement. Twenty years ago Fontaine was stuck working on a fruit farm in Port-au-Prince. Now Fontaine's fingers rake through his 'fro. Though disheartened by Law Dog's take on the American political system (which, he acknowledges, is within his young friend's rights as an American citizen), Fontaine says immigrants such as he "come to this country believing things will be different here. Everybody says Americans have life good. In Haiti you see the corrupt leaders, the fixed elections. Now things are being fixed here.... I wasted my vote."  

A few hours later at the Palm Beach government center, a television news reporter is doing repeated takes in front of a camera -- one for a station in San Diego, another for a New York channel, and a third for Bloomberg News. He's tiny, only about five feet tall, so his producer has given him a suitcase on which to stand.

A young man clad in blue jeans powders and repowders the reporter between feeds. As soon as the camera light blinks on, the pintsize reporter greets viewers in various cities in stentorian tones. He keeps his hand in his pocket to appear casual. Just before the New York feed, he calls his coordinator, who is standing beside the cameraman.

"HEY! Is it CATHleen or CHRISteen in New York?"

After a hissed reply, he goes live. "Thanks Christine," he says with a smile, "as you can see behind me, here in Palm Beach County tonight..."

To his left, two other newscasters stand in front of their crews. "How much time to the feed?" one calls. When not on camera, they rehearse like actors, muttering their lines over and over. They check and recheck their hair; they check and recheck their ties.

A few minutes later, the miniature reporter gets on the phone. "We've booked all the 1:40 seats to Tallahassee," he tells someone. The person on the other end of the line asks a question. "Oh, I slept a couple hours on the plane, but no, not since Tuesday morning."

Then one cameraman walks by, talking with a companion. "I filed a $10,000 expense report, and they never even blinked," he says.

A few minutes later LePore takes a break from the recount and heads for the TV lights. Almost 20,000 of her butterfly ballots were double-punched and discarded, she says. She'll never design such a ballot again. "Hindsight is 20/20," she adds.

It's midafternoon on WQAM-AM (560), and radio personality Hank "The Hammer" Goldberg is for once not talking sports. Caller after caller testifies to uncounted ballots, egregious violation of law, and Bush clan conflict of interest.

Caller: I may be called a bigot for this, but here goes. Is it possible that we had a significant number of noncitizens voting? Because all you have to do is say yes to the fact that you're a citizen when you register. You no longer have to prove it.

Hank: Eh. I don't know. The Hispanic vote went pretty much for Gore this year.

Caller: Oh. I didn't realize that.

A few minutes later, an even more interesting call comes in.

Caller: I felt like I was watching a mile race where none of the closes were closing. Then Bush comes out of the clear blue. Gore cries foul. And then you've got the drug question. You know, was he hopped up on something? But the other thing is...

Hank: Where was that question? I didn't hear that one.

Caller: Heh. Yeah. well, another thing...

Live television has an inverse effect. The real-time world seems oddly slow by comparison. So here, as everywhere, it's later than you think. Tomorrow is Japan's today and Adam Yamaguchi's viewers are waiting to watch Florida tow the nation to a Republican-led future.

"I don't even need to be here," he mutters. In a way, he's right. Yamaguchi, who is 21 years old and lives in Los Angeles, flew to South Florida just to film the site of the Broward County recount, a warehouse on Southwest Second Street near a yoga studio, around the corner from bail bondsmen and a 24-hour pizza joint. He works for Asahi, a television network that covers American news for the Japanese, and admits he could have trained a camera on an office park in the San Fernando Valley. Viewers wouldn't have been able to tell the difference. "In Japan, you know, they're not looking at specifics. They just want to know, you know, that they're still counting."

And they want to see that other networks' cameras are rolling, too: "It's not going to make a difference, but I just want to have them in the background."

In the background a stream of camera people, blue-blazered network reporters, and sheriff's deputies in forest green polyester wander in and out as receptionist Joan Sykes blithely licks the last drop of Dole fruit cup syrup from a plastic spoon. "This is just a flukey thing," Sykes says, tossing the spoon and cup into a trash can under her desk and launching into a rambling tale of the real election story the stations never tell. Sykes' scoop, a description of how the warehouse works, is about as scintillating as a segment on a bread factory. But she insists it's compelling. Besides, it's an exclusive; "I picked you," she brightly tells a reporter, "because you kinda look like my daughter."  

Camera crews from NBC affiliates, ABC affiliates, and CNN crowd the place. Most media people look bored. They don't speak much to one another but talk into cell phones, sometimes two at once. A middle-aged member of the Bush contingent is gabbing away. "There were shenanigans to the north of us and to the south of us, but I think we're OK here."

If the liberal press is worried about a Republican administration, no one shows it. Even though he's inside, a CNN reporter keeps putting on and taking off the wraparound sunglasses that hang from his neck on a cord. Folding tables are littered with takeout food along with liter upon liter of broadcasters' ubiquitous elixir, Evian. A female TV producer offers up the remaining half of a gargantuan sandwich. There is no taker.

The detritus of democracy is all around: a precinct sign with masking tape stuffed in a yellow garbage can, postal boxes stacked with affidavits. A female deputy stands impassive at the door to the glassed-in room where ballots are being recounted. Her arms fold across her chest like the doorman at an exclusive nightclub.

Across the room, 41-year-old temporary Broward County employee Tony Davis slumps in a metal folding chair. "No, I didn't vote," he says, not looking up. "Just not much of a voter." Scanning the day's newspapers, he admits in hindsight he wishes he had cast a ballot. "You kinda feel like, one vote, what's it gonna matter? I guess if everyone thought that way.... " Davis will return to his usual maintenance job when he's done here. He dislikes George W. Bush: "He brought back the death penalty in Texas. We'd be into capital punishment." His coworkers agree. Few of them voted.

Yamaguchi didn't vote, either. He had to leave California and didn't remember to get an absentee ballot in time. "I kinda got screwed," he says. He consoles himself with the fact that Gore won his home state anyway. As the evening wears on, he grows repentant, then angry. "I'm a total Gore supporter. I hate Bush. Whatever hell and havoc he wreaks on this country, it's our fault."

Just before 6 p.m., Broward Supervisor of Elections Jane Carroll appears, and Yamaguchi hurries over to join the reporting horde. In the bright white lights of the cameras, Carroll's face looks pale and glowing, a full moon. Her lips are painted a patriotic crimson that appears inexplicably Republican. She reports the results of the recount, and nothing has changed, really. A young Bush supporter in white shirt and tie holds up a small disposable camera to snap a picture of the media taking pictures of Carroll. "For posterity," he drawls.

Meanwhile his Democrat counterpart ambles about in a gold Gore 2000 shirt, jeans, and flip-flops, looking dejected and collegiate, like he's just pulled an all-nighter only to find out the exam was canceled. He takes a cell phone call while nearby a blond TV reporter explains the recount in Spanish.

Outside it's déjà vu. Through the window of a CNN satellite van, the reporter's face reappears, this time on a flickering 12-inch monitor. Her voice is slightly delayed, but it doesn't matter. In Broward, at least, no one can hear her.

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