- Gordon Sasser first got the feeling that something
was going on when the telephone pierced the silence of a weekday afternoon
at his house on the swampy fringes of Tallahassee, northern Florida.
- An automated voice had some surprising news: did he know
that he could now cast his presidential vote by phone, and could do so
right now, using the keypad? Mr Sasser's suspicion that somebody was trying
to trick him into thinking he was casting a vote - presumably so that he
wouldn't cast a real one - was far from unique.
- James Scruggs, another Tallahassee resident, remembers
a similar unease about the young woman who phoned him at home, insistently
offering to collect his absentee ballot to ensure its safe delivery.
- Then there was the elderly woman who called the local
elections office last week to register her husband for an absentee vote.
According to office staff, as she hung up she made a point of thanking
them: she wouldn't have thought to get in touch about her husband, she
said, if it hadn't been for their helpful call the night before, when
had taken her own details, assuring her that she was now registered and
would receive a ballot.
- But the elections office makes no such calls.
- "It's Alice in Wonderland here now," sighed
Ion Sancho, elections supervisor for Leon County, which includes
Florida's capital. "Up is down, and down is up ... My feeling is that
someone has essentially conned her into believing that she's going to be
- Mr Sancho is a longstanding thorn in the side of
governor, Jeb Bush, who presides from a building across the street. But
even he seems astonished by the reports reaching his office these
- "I've been an elections supervisor for 16 years
now, and nobody has ever called me with this kind of activity
- The mysterious calls are only the most vivid symptoms
of broader problems in Florida which critics fear could leave thousands
of citizens disenfranchised on November 2.
- New electronic voting machines have proven error-prone,
and may not be capable of accurate recounts. State authorities are
to withhold votes from people who forget to tick a box confirming that
they are US citizens, even though they signed a statement to the same
on the same form. And among several legal feuds, Florida Democrats are
accusing the state of failing properly to implement measures designed to
prevent a repeat of the 2000 fiasco, when thousands of African-Americans
were wrongly prevented from voting.
- The US election officially began in Florida yesterday,
as early voting sites opened across the state - though in Duval County,
a Republican-run area with a large African-American population, that too
is a subject of dispute. Only one early voting site, far from densely
neighbourhoods, has been made available for the entire county.
- "One location for a county of 831 acres - that's
the most asinine thing I've ever heard," said the Rev William Bolden,
a Jacksonville pastor who is among many to detect a pattern in the
- Though voters have been affected across the spectrum
of race and politics - Mr Sasser, for one, is white and a Republican -
they will have the effect, Democrats say, of limiting turnout among
poor and less educated voters, all of whom traditionally vote Democrat.
They have been registered in record numbers this year, so the stakes are
higher than ever. "Certainly, somebody is afraid," Mr Bolden
- Florida faded from international headlines after the
dramas of 2000, but on the broad, tree-lined streets of the state capital,
things have rarely been more fraught.
- Katherine Harris, the elected Republican secretary of
state widely seen as a key fighter in the effort to make sure George Bush
won the 2000 recount process, is gone. But in her place is Glenda Hood,
a former Republican office-holder who, thanks to a change in state law,
was not elected but appointed directly by Governor Bush, the president's
- Ms Hood has found herself embroiled in a sequence of
rows. First, there was the attempt to undertake a new purge of alleged
ex-felons from Florida's voter lists - the same practice that left up to
22,000 people, mainly African-Americans, wrongly denied a vote in 2000.
That was discontinued after it was revealed that the new list contained
22,000 blacks and only 61 Hispanics, who traditionally vote Republican
- Now her office is instructing county officials to reject
registration forms from thousands of Floridians who did not check a box
answering "yes" to the question "Are you a US citizen?"
- even though, in signing the form, applicants agree with the statement
"I do solemnly swear ... [that] I am a US citizen."
- She is also fighting a courtroom battle over Florida's
new system of "provision ballots", introduced after the 2000
fiasco so that people who arrived at the polls to discover they were not
on the register could vote anyway, then have their case considered by
Ms Hood has decreed that the facility will not be available to anybody
who turns up at the wrong precinct within their county.
- "But in most cases, the errors in the precinct
are made by the elections office, not by the voter," said Jerry
a lawyer fighting Ms Hood on a number of cases. "Everything they're
doing seems to be designed to exclude people from the democratic process,
rather than including them."
- Mr Traynham's other major case involves the touch-screen
voting machines on which almost a third of Americans will be voting the
week after next. Ms Hood had originally sought to have the machines
from any manual recounts - a decision overturned in court - but now her
critics argue that the machines leave an insufficient audit trail: no
paper receipt is produced when a citizen votes.
- "They certified technology in Florida which probably
can't actually do a real recount," Mr Traynham said. "The real
danger is that if something goes wrong, you'll never know."
- In earlier primary elections in Florida in 2002,
to a recent Vanity Fair investigation, one precinct using the machines
recorded no votes, several others had their voter records wiped, 24 polling
places opened late, and dozens of poll workers resigned.
- Ms Hood has consistently denied allegations of bias,
suggesting that the eleventh-hour nature of the lawsuits shows they are
motivated by partisanship. "It is ridiculous to suggest that Secretary
Hood is doing anything other than reaching out to all voters in the
her spokeswoman, Alia Faraj, told the Tampa Tribune. "Our goal is
to get as many people as possible to participate in the
- Ion Sancho is beginning to sound exasperated by it all
- though he insists that, in Leon County at least, he will do all he can
to make sure all who are legally entitled to vote are actually able to
- "What I learned in 2000 was that Florida is not
committed to ensuring that all citizens have equal access to voting,"
he said. "I saw how this movie went the first time. I don't want to
watch it a second time."
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