Something very strange happened on election night to Deborah Tannenbaum, a Democratic Party official in Volusia County. At 10 p.m., she called the county elections department and learned that Al Gore was leading George W. Bush 83,000 votes to 62,000.
But when she checked the county's Web site for an update half an hour later, she found a startling development: Gore's count had dropped by 16,000 votes, while an obscure Socialist candidate had picked up 10,000--all because of a single precinct with only 600 voters.
The aberration was relayed to County Judge Michael McDermott, the election overseer. "We have a problem here," he said.
It was the beginning of a week-long tragicomedy of errors in this central Florida county, where an initial count showed Gore beating Bush by 97,063 votes to 82,214. Volusia's mess is in some ways more damning than the mix-up in Palm Beach County, where controversy has centered on a confusing ballot design. Although there is no evidence that the first round of results was wildly inaccurate, the problems in counting votes here are systemic. The underlying causes are not fraud or corruption, but lax state oversight, inadequate funding, technological glitches, poor training--and general ineptitude.
Consider these events:
On election night, six precincts couldn't transmit their results because of computer problems, and the county's returns were delayed until 3 a.m. About that time, sheriff's deputies were dispatched to find an election worker who had left the ballot collection area with two uninspected bags.
Wednesday, when county officials were attempting a recount in front of TV cameras, an elderly poll worker walked in with a bag full of ballots that had been left in his car the previous night.
By Thursday, the elections office was surrounded by police tape, and a local Bush official was thrown out of a meeting for getting too rowdy.
Friday, county workers found a ballot bag in their vault without a seal, another with a broken seal and a third on a shelf with ballots spilling out. Meanwhile, dozens of black students from a local college complained they were turned away from polling stations even though they were registered to vote.
This morning, 300 county workers and hundreds more party observers converged on county offices for a manual recount of nearly 200,000 ballots that was later postponed until Sunday. The confusion in Volusia, one of four counties where Democrats have requested manual recounts, suggests why such an arduous process may be necessary. But it also suggests that a central argument of the Republicans who tried today to stop the recounts--that they won't resolve anything--may have some validity.
"No wonder people in the North think we're a bunch of bumbling idiots--because we are," says James Clayton, a DeLand lawyer--and he represents Bush. "From a practical standpoint, nobody has any faith in the system."
Douglas Daniels, a lawyer for Gore here, predicts there will be "television movies about how the election was stolen in Volusia County." He frets that Volusia will become conspiracy theorists' new "Grassy Knoll gunman."
Doug Lewis, an election expert who runs the non-profit Election Center in Washington, says many of the troubles in Florida would be found anywhere if a close election were scrutinized. "If anything, the elections officials in Florida live to a higher standard," he said. But told of the happenings in Volusia, Lewis revised his opinion. "If these things are true, this is an exception," he says. "This is one that would embarrass all of us."
In some ways that is not surprising. The county, which encompasses Orlando bedroom communities on bustling Interstate 4, Daytona Beach and a growing population of Hispanics and northern retirees, was known decades ago for shootouts, ambushes and stolen ballot boxes at election time. "We have a sordid history of election fraud in this county," Circuit Judge John Doyle wrote in a 1997 ruling.
In that case, a challenge to Volusia's 1996 sheriff election, Doyle focused on incompetence, attributing "gross negligence" to election supervisor Deanie Lowe and her canvassing board but allowing the election to stand. They missed about 1,000 votes and illegally re-marked absentee ballots with black markers, among other things. In 1998, Lowe had to re-issue about 1,200 misprinted absentee ballots. And another ballot was found to have violated state law requiring that candidates for nonpartisan office be listed alphabetically.
Lowe, in a hurried interview last week, defended the office's performance. "There's no trouble," she said. "Everything humanly possible was done to make sure it was a fair election."
Nobody alleges fraud in Volusia, and it's possible the mishaps haven't substantially altered the election's results. As Lowe points out, each of the problems can be explained. For example, it turned out that the election worker who left with two bags was merely taking home dirty laundry. Had the presidential election not come down to a couple of hundred votes in Florida, the troubles here might have gone unnoticed.
County spokesman David Byron boasts that a recount found "exactly the same" tally and suggests that this vindicates the county. But the recount he refers to was a comparison between the data in the computer and the computer printout. The actual ballots were not scrutinized. That's a little like saying a word-processing document contains no spelling errors because a printout matches the version on the screen.
Although Volusia County is a microcosm of the tremendous changes from growth and suburbanization that Florida has undergone in the past decades, the way it runs its elections seems something of a throwback to its rural past. In the past five years, the number of registered voters in the county has increased 28 percent, from 203,000 to 260,000, but the money to hold elections hasn't grown proportionately. Lowe said she hasn't asked for big budget increases, using a $1 million computer system introduced in 1994 to do more with less. Still, there are problems. "I'd like a new building," Lowe said.
As the recounting progressed last week, the elections department was mobbed by sheriff's deputies checking everything--even office supplies--that entered a secured area for signs of stray ballots. When 20 boxes of Hungry Howie's pizza arrived for lunch Friday, Phil Giorno, the Democratic county chairman, teased the cops: "Did somebody check those?"
Finally on Friday, election officials had to relocate the recounting operation to other county offices across the street. While the nation waited for Volusia's results, men piled the 300 ballot bags on a truck under the supervision of guards, witnesses and McDermott, who joked that after all the years he spent on the bench, "now I'm telling people how to load a truck."
Though Lowe insists funding isn't an issue in Volusia, the Election Center's Lewis says money is a particular problem in poorer areas and those experiencing large growth, where infrastructure and police get priority over elections. Training also seems to be an issue for Volusia's 2,000 poll workers.
That was underscored when poll worker Gene Tracy, 79, walked into the election office Wednesday explaining how a bag of ballots was left in his car. "I about had a cotton-pickin' stroke," he told a local reporter. "I hollered for my wife and I said, 'The dadburn ballots are still in the car.' "
Technology is also a problem. Though Volusia's new system (in which ballots are marked with a felt pen and put in a scanner) is superior to Palm Beach's baffling ballot, faulty "memory cards" in the machines caused the 16,000-vote disappearance on election night. The glitch was soon fixed. Also, Volusia secures ballots in blue canvas tote bags, sealed with tape that keeps popping off. Its fancy system also has a problem accepting damaged absentee ballots.
But both sides here blame human error, and particularly Lowe. "She's a nice lady, [but] she's a bumbling idiot," said Republican Clayton. "How do you lose a bag of ballots? She doesn't dot her i's and cross her t's."
Democrat Giorno's solution to the mess: "Elect a new supervisor of elections." In fact, the people of Volusia rendered their verdict on Lowe last week--they reelected her.
Even McDermott, admired by Republicans and Democrats, seems overwhelmed as chairman of the elections canvassing board. "I'm going to go home and take a nap," he said at lunchtime Friday. "You'll have to be patient with me. I haven't had very much sleep lately."
And he's not about to get much soon. Even if the recount ends by Tuesday, he's likely to face more doubts about the process. It turns out Volusia's Bethune-Cookman College, a traditionally black school, held a voter registration drive that produced 2,000 new voters. But a large number--the school says 50; the Democrats say more than 100--claim they were turned away at the polls. "It'll be thrown in the hopper," vows Democratic lawyer Daniels.