Tropical Storm Sandy had passed and left a clear, crisp morning as early voting started Saturday in Palm Beach County. An estimated 12,250 votes were cast countywide over the weekend, and if the 7 A.M. crowd at the Supervisor of Elections office on Military Trail was any indication, voters were patient, enthusiastic, and greatly black and Hispanic.
But counting the votes is another matter. A large portion of some 60,000 PBC absentee ballots were screwed up by a printing error. Now, though, they are ready to be counted. And with the presidential race too close to call, Florida a critical battleground state, and PBC with a history of electoral disaster--the Obama and Romney campaigns are taking no chances. Both have lawyered-up teams of out-of-town observers on the ground eyeballing the tally like a squad of proctologists.
Getting them to talk? Fuhgeddabout it.
The defective ballots have to be hand-copied so that the county's voting machines can read them. That work started early last week in a Riviera Beach industrial warehouse, a space large enough for a football field, under thirty-foot ceilings, with duplicating teams at an array of forty tables, racks and stacks of bins of ballots around them. The process, described in detail on the Supervisor of Elections website, goes on six days a week.
The two parties' observers have command desks in a holding pen outside the counting area, the Dem's area well-stocked with coffee and snacks, the GOP more spartan. Dress codes are similar: the Dems laidback in jeans, the GOP suited and tied, the young men quite preppy.
As Saturday's copying got started, the Dem team was gleefully passing around an iPhone with pictures of the morning's early voter turnout in Riviera Beach's majority black community. It was a light touch but still, this ain't no party. Ask the team leader how things are going and she says "No comment. I have no comment and none of us have any comment. I can give you a phone number for state headquarters in Tampa who'll also tell you 'No comment.' And if anyone here talks to you it's off the record."
All righty then....Sidle on up to the GOP team leader, a young lawyer out of Boston, and it's the same: Radio silence blackout.
Nothing to do but watch the copiers copy the ballots. It's not much more thrilling than watching paint dry, but it's reassuring, a well-organized, rational process that lacks any of the excitement that reporters dream of and citizens should dread. Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, very natty in a grey pants suit, is on hand to mother hen the process, walking the aisles among the workers, answering questions, toting plastic bins of ballots to the tables. Maybe the hardest working woman in the county today and for the next couple of weeks, it's her birthday, we later learn.
Back to the observer teams, we scratch out a little info: They're from all over the country and include a high proportion of lawyers. They're on mobile phones or computers, giving instruction to local party volunteers or themselves taking turns sitting behind the copiers' desks, one observer from each party, on the lookout for error or chicanery.
Someone opens up, finally, a big guy in a suit from the GOP team, though with the understanding we're not to talk about the balloting. Turns out he's a high-level party leader out of Indiana, one Dan Dumezich (picture above), co-chair of Romney's Indiana campaign. He describes himself--modestly--as an attorney and retired judge.
Can Dan afford to take time off to visit Florida while the national race nears its peak, and Indiana a blue state in 2008? Piece of cake, he says: "Romney's up fifteen points in Indiana. [GOP candidate] Mike Pence is in double digits in the governor's race."
What about Richard Mourdock, the Indiana GOP candidate for the US Senate, who made national headlines last week when he described rape pregnancy as a gift from God? "If that's what Richard believes," Dan says, "it's good people know that. People voting on that sort of issue won't vote for him anyway."
We talk about the national campaign, about jobs and about energy policy. Asked what he thinks of the President's claim to have an "all of the above" energy policy, Dan scoffs: "He lied. He's a liar." When it comes right down to it, Dan says, Obama is "just another Chicago politician." (Funny comment from someone who turns out to be a high-powered tax specialist at a major national law firm's Chicago office. But whatever.)
We've heard that the "no-comment" policy is a mutually agreed arrangement between the Dems and GOP, who've got enough to argue about without criticizing the mechanics of the election--for now, anyway. If it's a nailbiter--and it looks like it will be--and there's any way either party can find a way to blame the ref, bet on an ugly verbal slugfest (and from the Romney camp, even worse). In the meantime, let's count our blessings--and wish Susan Bucher a happy birthday.
Fire Ant--an invasive species, tinged bright red, with an annoying, sometimes fatal bite--covers Palm Beach County. Got feedback or a tip? Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.