Less than a month away, the presidential election looms off the coast of South Florida like a seasonal storm, one of those buzz-saw conflagrations that television weathermen track on their display maps. Yes, it's a red, flaming buzz saw coming this way.
Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes likes the hurricane image. "Or maybe a tsunami would be better," she said the other day. "It's big, it's boiling, it's rolling."
She's talking here not about big-hearted Florida voters, brimming with passion for their respective candidates but about logistics. The expected outpouring of voter fervor comes with county poll workers running machines that are barely out of mothballs. The county's 1,242 new ES&S optical scanners have been rolled out once — in the August 26 state primary. But there was a turnout of barely 100,000 in that election. On November 4, more than seven times that number could show up at the polls in Broward, where the number of registered voters is fast approaching 1 million.
What are the county's polls going to look like on Election Day — snapshots of democracy in action or minibattlegrounds, with frustrated voters in open rebellion?
"Twenty-eight or 29 hours a day, we're planning and strategizing," stolidly insisted Snipes, possibly the most popular Broward elected official (she got about 85 percent of the vote in the August primary, more than any other candidate), though we'll see what voters say November 5. There have already been minor gaffes, like the balky scanners that wouldn't accept ballots during the primary.
In Palm Beach County, which uses similar voting machines, a close contest for a judgeship forced a series of recounts, with the losing candidate claiming there was "machine error."
Tailpipe ran into the county's top election official at the opening last Thursday of an exhibition at the Fort Lauderdale Historical Society, "Cast Your Ballot: Elections in Fort Lauderdale."
The 'Pipe wanted to see how the exhibition would handle such embarrassingly memorable election-related items as the infamous "hanging chads" of 2000. To curator Margo Edwards' credit, the chads are there — a little pile of them, like pencil shavings, under glass, with a note explaining how "hanging," "pregnant," and "dimpled" chads had lethally complicated the count in the Bush-Gore contest.
Other election-related mishaps are represented too, though not in a lot of detail. There's a copy of the infamous "butterfly ballot" from Palm Beach County that had unwary pro-Al Gore voters voting in big numbers for Pat Buchanan. There are front pages of the Miami Herald, including the banner headline: "Bush Suspends Oliphant" — a reference to former Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant, who was kicked out of office by Gov. Jeb Bush after, as the exhibition notes, "accusations of mismanagement and incompetence [arising] from a problematic 2002 primary election."
Going further back, there are 1930 receipts for poll taxes — $1 for the privilege of voting. The poll tax, used to keep the rabble (think: black people) away from the polls, was repealed in Florida in 1937.
Snipes stood pensively in front of a portable voting table that holds one of the notorious touch-screen iVotronics machines. Before it was replaced this year, the iVotronics was known for such erratic behavior as counting backward, registering votes for the wrong candidates, and erasing votes, all without leaving a paper record.
"There it is," Snipes said, touching it.
"Your old pal?" Tailpipe asked.
"Well, to tell you the truth, I've used it more than any paper ballots," she said. In fact, there's still one iVotronics in each of the county's 779 precincts, for use by the disabled.
The exhibition — with its historic lawn signs and bumper stickers, photographs of old-time politicians and officials, its obsolete voting equipment — certainly doesn't resonate like something the Museum of Art might have cooked up down the street ("King Tut," maybe). But it sneaks up on you.
One of the people who spilled over into the space from an art exhibition downstairs was painter Marilyn Johansen, who recalled voting in 2000 in Fort Lauderdale. "I put the ballot into the machine, and it didn't fit right," she said (a common complaint that day, related to inferior paper stock that was used for the ballot punch cards, creating all the chad problems). "I don't know who I voted for that day. But I learned my lesson."
"I didn't speak up. Now, if I feel something's not right, I'm going to speak up."
Tailpipe has his fingers crossed that all the people prepared to speak up now don't amount to a cacophonous tsunami, turning an admirable exercise in democracy into another display is some future gallery of Broward voting atrocities.
First, she noticed a duck failing to respond when she called to him. Then a mallard struggled to breathe. Then she found the bodies — sometimes two or three at a time. Tanya Payne, a retired nurse who lives in Coconut Creek, is known around the neighborhood as "the duck lady." She's seen at least 20 Muscovy ducks from the local colony die in the past two months.
They all die in the same way: They stop eating and make a horrible wheezing sound as they breathe. They have problems swimming. Then paralysis and death. Payne thought someone was poisoning the ducks.
"So many people hate the ducks," she says. "In this area, people are cruel to them. They get annoyed because the ducks poo on the sidewalks. Who cares? Just leave 'em alone."
Payne — who, depending on your perspective, is either a candidate for sainthood or the neighborhood's biggest pain in the tush — has a detailed understanding of the duck community, like Margaret Mead keeping track of the Samoans. Most of the ducks have names.
The first to go was Frankie, she says. "He was in charge of the lake." Then Frankie's brother Fred. Then Henry and his girlfriend, Blondie. "I've lost so many recently, I can barely remember all their names."
Her neighbors give her grief about feeding the ducks. A woman living near Payne, who asked not to be named, says the neighbors are tired of being attacked by overly eager ducks that are used to being fed by humans.
"They shit all over the place," she said. "There's nothing like walking to your car in the morning and getting duck shit on your shoes."
Undeterred, Payne makes a monthly trip to a feed store in Boynton Beach for a 50-pound bag of proper duck food — dried cracked corn. "There are no more cornfields in this area," she says. "They're living on grass, poor things. It's not good enough for them. Soon there will be no more ducks, and people will wonder where they all went."
When she saw her ducks turning up dead, she says, she reported the deaths to the SPCA. From the symptoms she described, they told her it sounded like lethal botulism toxins, probably from bread distributed by human feeders. The solution: Stop feeding the ducks. Bread thrown into lakes and canals, they explained, can become toxic and fatal to fowl.
"The SPCA people don't care about the ducks either. Their answer to everything is 'Don't feed the ducks, don't feed the ducks.' If you call them about a sick duck, they'll come out in the middle of the night and break the duck's neck."
Luckily, Payne says, a favorite of hers never got sick. Mamacita, one of the oldest females in the colony, seems to have an immunity, she says. "Mamacita has seen so many die. So many generations. It's a shame. This one duck, bless her, has been through so much."
Tailpipe says: God bless Mamacita, God bless Tanya Payne, and, God, please keep them both away from the 'Pipe's neighborhood.
Jeff Conine knows how to play baseball — you don't get nicknames like "Mr. Marlin" if you can't swing the lumber. But he doesn't have a clue how to retire. Instead of packing his belly full of early-bird specials and driving slow in the fast lane, the recently retired outfielder is headed to Hawaii for the Ironman Triathlon, to begin this Saturday morning.
That's the one where you warm up with a 2.4-mile swim through choppy ocean waters, then hop on a bike for 112 mountain-strewn miles before finishing your day with a marathon: 26.2 miles over terrain that has hardly cooled since it was volcanic lava.
"Pretty much the consensus is that I'm nuts," says Conine, speaking of the reaction he's gotten from former teammates.
He got the idea from Marlins President David Samson, and shortly after playing his last game in 2007, as a member of the New York Mets, Conine came home to Weston to embark on a grueling training regimen. "The first week, it was a 40-minute run, an hour bike ride, and a 500-meter swim," he says. About nine months later, it was three-hour run, seven-hour bike ride, and 6,000-meter swim.
Conine spent a month in North Carolina training in the mountains to prepare for the steep climbs that await him in Hawaii.
So the 41-year-old Conine will celebrate the completion of one of the most grueling human endeavors by doing crossword puzzles and channeling his competitive instincts toward shuffleboard or golf, right?
"I don't know," he says. "I'll definitely take some time off. But my brother-in-law is nationally ranked on the professional racquetball circuit, and he's invited me to play on his doubles team. I might do that."