Tally Against the Machine

DIY Vote Counting

Raise your hand if you think, without a shred of doubt, that your vote will be counted.

Tailpipe sees a lot of unraised hands. A lot of doubtful looks. Florida voters are, of course, oft-snakebitten in the voting booth, without even looking back to the 2000 fiasco of hanging chads. There was that congressional election in Sarasota two years ago, when 18,000 voters went to the polls and, in one of the most hotly contested campaigns of the year, apparently didn't vote for either candidate. This was, in official election verbiage, an "undervote," though for supporters of Democratic candidate Christine Jennings, loser by 369 votes, it was more like "we wuz robbed." Then there was the inexplicable lack of support for John Kerry in 2004 in heavily Democratic Broward and Palm Beach counties that probably delivered the state to George Bush.

Tailpipe could go on, with all the glitches and voting anomalies that have cropped up since electronic voting machines were introduced to the state after 2002. Sure, most of it probably amounts to nothing but Election Day minutiae and fodder for conspiracy theorists. But the important thing is that, between the Florida breakdowns and Election Day shenanigans in other states, a lot of people no longer have faith in an electronic voting system.

Last week, some Broward County citizens — as well as volunteers from nine other Florida counties — decided to do something about it. They participated in what may have been the first citizen exit poll in America, with nonprofessional data gatherers buttonholing voters as they left the polls and rerecording their votes.

The Broward volunteers for Project Vote Count — about 20 of them, including Democrats, Republicans, and at least one Green Party affiliate, all manning tables outside of the official voting sites — ran the poll just like an official election. Voters were invited to fill out voting "affidavits," which were then dropped into sealed boxes. As many as 75 percent of the voters in seven targeted precincts agreed to share their voting information. The next day, volunteers began the slow, surprisingly complex process of tallying the votes.

Some volunteers — a diverse group of five, young and middle-aged, infused with a palpable sense of high purpose — gathered in the New Times conference room. They slit the tape of one sealed box, clearly a historic moment for them, and spread the paper affidavits on the table. Then they began to organize the affidavits by party and candidate. The results from that precinct, in Coral Ridge, with a sampling of about 25 percent of the total who voted, were shockingly out of whack with the numbers recorded by the Board of Elections. For example, John McCain scooped up 50 percent of the Republican vote in the precinct, though he registered only 21 percent in the exit poll, while Hillary Clinton scored 59.5 percent from the official poll, 45 percent from the exit affidavits.

For one volunteer, it was a gotcha moment. "In my opinion, it's rigged," said David Wieldt, examining the results. "Look at this. Hillary got a boost of 15 percent."

In fact, it was too small a sample with which to make sweeping inferences, Wieldt conceded a few minutes later.

The group won't issue final results until the end of this week, after the county's official numbers come out — because, Project Vote Count organizers say, they don't want the Board of Elections to tweak its results to compensate for the exit poll findings. If there's a big disparity — comparable to those early Coral Ridge findings — exit pollsters will know that the machines once again misfired.

Why should ordinary people like these go through this exercise? Why not leave it to the pros?

Ellen Brodsky, a longtime voting-rights activist and coordinator of the Broward effort, ticks off the reasons. "First of all, there are no auditing procedures in Florida," she says. "There's no way to check the results of an electronic vote. Broward County has a history of extremely flawed elections. Then there's the iVotronic touchscreen machines that we've been using. They're very cheaply engineered."

And the pros? Where were they? Not in Broward County on January 29.

Those iVotronics, by the way, manufactured in the Philippines by Omaha-based Election Systems & Software, are on their way out. As of next August, Broward will use not touchscreens but "optical scanners," also manufactured by ES&S. (Though the new machines produce paper backup records, they have their own problems, including a demonstrable hackability by would-be election stealers.)

The idea for Project Vote Count originated with Mark Adams, a Tampa-area lawyer who established a website to record citizen findings (www.projectvotecount.com) and called on volunteers from other states to participate. A federal court ruling in 2006 allowed citizens' polling groups to set up closer to polling places than the 100 feet designated for electioneering, easing the way for Project Vote Count volunteers, who plan to be in at least one other state, Texas, for its primary next month.

"Stay tuned," Brodsky says. "It's just the start."

Maybe it's the start of a movement to abandon high-priced, glitch-prone electronic hardware in favor of the old reliable way of counting votes: citizens sitting around a table with stacks of paper ballots.

Come Back, Mara. Noooooo.

Stepping into the dimly lit polling place in Hollywood last Tuesday, Tailpipe could almost hear the whirring of a film reel as a montage of Mara Giulianti played through his frontal lobe.

Would this be the election that finally toppled the Giulianti regime?

In the little chamber, the 'Pipe went back, back, back, like a bad movie, with pages of a calendar riffling backward in a wind, the hands of a big wall clock spinning crazily. The memories crowded in, blurred, wavering, drunken, then slowly coming into focus. There was Mara, short, obstreperous, refusing to answer questions from a New Times reporter, then taking the City Commission dais to deliver a withering critique. For a moment, Tailpipe pictured her in a commanding pose, one hand thrust into her jacket like Napoleon.

Then there was Mara in a hardhat, wielding a spade for one of those condo groundbreaking photo ops. There were enough of those to wallpaper Hollywood City Hall.

And the emails. Even as an emailer, Mara had been an imposing, echoey presence. With her heavy doses of capital letters and exclamation marks, Tailpipe could almost hear her bellowing through the monitor.

The 'Pipe's ears still rang from the time he was summoned to Mara's office to listen to a diatribe about the way Mara was treated in the press. No, she didn't care what reporters thought. That was what she kept saying. She had this vision for her city, and it didn't matter what reporters did or said. The towers would go up.

At the voting place, the 'Pipe punched the button for one of Mara's competitors, got his "I voted" sticker, and stumbled out of the polling place.

In the sunlight, though, he was struck with — how else to describe it? — voter remorse.

What a fool the 'Pipe had been! Does a banker vote against money? Does the priest reject prayer? The old gas-emitting car part had just voted against one of South Florida's greatest newsmakers. As long as Giulianti was around, Tailpipe was never low on inspiration, never doubted his purpose. With Mara in City Hall, he was never wracked by existential crisis. He turned back, tempted to run screaming into the polling place and demand to be allowed to revote.

But, no, it was late. Much too late.

Hollywood would have its Peter Bober now, a commissioner who had cast votes for some of the same glad-handing developers that Giulianti had favored. How was he going to clean up a City Hall run by insiders? When asked, Bober got weasely, like he was saying read my lips as Commissioners Fran Russo and Richard Blattner looked on complacently. The 'Pipe read his lips. They seemed to say same old shit.

That night, after the votes were counted and the Era de Mara officially came to an end, the 'Pipe swirled a glass of scotch and thought about Hollywood and its murky future. He wondered whether Hollywood could really change for the better and, if not, what Tailpipe would write about now that the curtain was coming down on the region's finest political theater.

E.T. Does Marathons

You may have seen him huffing up and down Las Olas in his combat boots and jacket — even midsummer. You might have seen him downtown, jogging in dress shoes, or at the beach, running barefoot. That's Coatman, a SoFla character. He's practicing.

Coatman, also known as Dennis Marsella, a 57-year-old Victoria Park resident, has run in more than 100 marathons. Every year, he competes in events from coast to coast, and he does it in a peculiar way: Coatman runs in tie, heavy jacket, and wingtip shoes, carrying, waiter-style, angel food cake with apple cider vinegar. He usually finishes in the top 25 percent.

No, he's not crazy, he insists. "It's part of my long-term research into what I call 'human potential.' "

Coatman thinks "the bell curve of human life" should last about 120 years. The first 40 years are just ramping up; the next 40 years are the prime window for human capacity. Then there are the years on the other side of the bell. "I'm seeing what I can do to basically stop aging," he says.

On slow days, he runs ten miles. At the peak of his training, he may do 23 miles in a day. He runs several full marathons (26.2 miles) a year, and right now, he's getting ready for the Fort Lauderdale marathon on February 17.

Every morning, Coatman spins himself around ritualistically 16 times. "It realigns your pituitary," he says. "When I run, I breathe in a special way. I infuse my system with super amounts of oxygen and photon light... The way I breathe, combined with the running, creates neuro-plasticity."

This is where he starts to lose Tailpipe, who begins to edge away.

Coatman has reached a metabolic balance he calls "stasis." "If you reach stasis, you're basically in a hold pattern. Your electrons spin, and your metabolism freezes."

Coatman says the money he saves not eating meat — about five bucks a day — pays for him to travel to marathons around the country. He'll run for about 40 more years, he insists.

Maybe Coatman has figured out the secret to extending human life.

"Maybe I'm an extraterrestrial," he says.

Or maybe he is nuts.

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