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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

All Night, Into the Day, Americans Fume and Puzzle Over a Presidential Potboiler

Reaction: Voters keep an incredulous eye on Florida's electoral college drama.

November 09, 2000|STEPHEN BRAUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It hardly mattered whether they had stayed up all night, transfixed in front of their televisions, or awoke to the suspense of a presidential election teetering in the balance.

As the day after passed in a divided nation Wednesday, Americans went about their lives with a focus as split as their votes had been the day before. In offices and gyms, in coffeehouses and restaurants, on isolated farms and inside teeming office towers, people managed to get their business done--yet they kept drifting back to the gripping developments coming out of Florida.

"Everybody's torn between work and Florida," said Cincinnati lawyer John Luken. Television sets blared in every office that had one. Partners who had computers were busy scouring Web sites for more news about the latest feints by Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Anywhere friends and co-workers gathered, they talked of little else. The staples of everyday conversation in America were swept away for the moment by the riveting soap opera of national politics.

Luken--the son of a stalwart Ohio Democratic family that has produced mayors and congressmen--has an insider's grasp of the havoc politics can play. But after several hours shuttling between TV news reports and the Internet, he was as slack-jawed as anyone else.

"With all due respect," he said, "is this the United States, or one of those places where you need a team of international observers to sort things out?"

Explaining Electoral College to Children

On a dairy farm in Athens, Wis., Dawn Mroczenski was fumbling--just like thousands of other American parents Wednesday morning--with how to tell her children that when the biggest prize in politics is on the line, sometimes winning the most votes does not always mean winning the race.

Mroczenski, 34, had been up until midnight with her husband, Mike, waiting to hear the final vote from her home state. Exhausted, she finally gave up, then awoke to grapple with her 7-year-old son's confusion. Why, he wanted to know as he dressed for school, had Gore--his favorite candidate--won the popular vote but seemed in danger of losing the election?

All Mroczenski could offer was the uncertainty she was hearing on television and a moral that President Clinton repeated later in the day: "This reinforces the fact that every vote counts."

But bromides were lost on many adults. People like Willie Williams, a San Diego messenger who had come to understand in recent days that the approaching election might be close enough to force a divided verdict. But when it apparently happened, he still could not fathom its reality.

"It just seems to be contradictory to democracy," said Williams, taking a break from making his deliveries. "You vote for mayor or senator, the guy with most votes wins. So what's so special about president? Are the people so stupid we can't pick our own president? Maybe this situation will cause them to fix things in the Constitution."

Outrage seemed to be floating everywhere Wednesday--sometimes aimed at the candidates, sometimes at their political parties, sometimes directed at circumstances. There was mounting disbelief that something so obvious was proving so elusive.

On a commercial strip in Chino Hills, in southwestern San Bernardino County, residents bobbed in and out of supermarkets, one-hour photo stores and medical offices while catching up on the news.

George Peich, 77, blamed the chaos on Florida itself.

The state's election officials, he said, were to blame. "As far as I'm concerned, this never should have happened," he said. "They should have been able to do the count right in the first place."

Judith Cohen, a record shop owner in Atlanta, fingered the television networks. She had stood in line for an hour Tuesday to vote for Gore, then came home and watched the election returns, stewing.

By 11:30 p.m., she had had enough. "I was so angry," she said, "at all of the networks because of their cynicism and their own feelings. They are so powerful."

So she turned the set off, vowing not to watch any television all day Wednesday. By late morning, after hearing an update on National Public Radio, she had stayed true to her vow. And she had expanded it: No television. No radio. No newspapers--for 24 hours.

"I'm not reading anything or listening to anything until then," she said, satisfied with her private guerrilla campaign.

Nearby, 42-year-old Steve Morse, a building engineer, was going out of his way to find a newspaper. He was checking news racks, desperate to find an early-edition copy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that had led with the headline: "Bush Is Declared Winner; Florida Vote Turns the Tide."

Like so many other fleeting headlines that were amended by the fast pace of political history Wednesday morning, that edition already had become a collector's item. "I'll bet that newspaper will be worth something if he loses," Morse said.

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