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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Low-Level Election Officials Are Under a Microscope, on a Treadmill

Pressure: The weight of history--and of party bigwigs--is on harried functionaries.

November 16, 2000|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The only other time in her 32 years as Broward County election supervisor that Jane C. Carroll faced a hand recount was over a 1996 tie in a mayoral race in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, population 3,800. She wrapped that one up in a few days. The incumbent won by a single vote.

But Carroll didn't have dueling former U.S. secretaries of State insisting the weight of the Republic rested on her shoulders. Or Tom Brokaw announcing on national television that she had lost ballots from nine precincts. (She hadn't.)

She didn't have hard-boiled Democratic operatives--Washington types who look albino-pale and awkward without their neckties in this vacation mecca--trashing her as if she were some sleazy influence-peddler trying to buy the next president.

After all, they whispered, how could Carroll, a lifelong Republican, be objective? She had donated $800 to George W. Bush's presidential campaign, and she had given $50 to the state's top Republican election official, Katherine Harris. "A whole $50," Carroll said with a smirk. "Imagine that." None of the 200 elections she has overseen "has ever been this bad."

The 2000 presidential election could ultimately turn on the actions of a few Florida canvassing boards stocked with veterans like Carroll: low-level supervisors, county commissioners and judges, people who are used to spending their days mediating fights in family court, scolding drunken driving defendants and examining property setbacks.

Suddenly, they have been entrusted with some of the toughest decisions that have ever confronted elected officials anywhere, high or low. It is the stuff of American democracy--messy, unclear and petty--but in this case, the nation's leadership hangs on it, and just about everyone is in their faces.

Do they understand Florida law? Are they articulate enough to explain in public what had been explained to them in private (endlessly, by advocates of Democratic nominee Al Gore or his GOP rival, George W. Bush)? Can they tell a chad from a dimple?

And as they face pressure that is sometimes brutal and sometimes nuanced, do they have the stamina to stick to their guns?

Walk into a cinder-block warehouse in Fort Lauderdale, and in separate corners, national Republican and Democratic operatives have set up camp. Republicans have appropriated a coffee machine, Democrats have a lock on the folding chairs.

Snaking their way between them, jostled by a pack of reporters, are the members of the Broward County canvassing board, two older women and a young male judge, weighted down by election books and briefcases, being tugged reluctantly into the pages of American electoral history.

It was Tuesday night, a week after the election, and the board's three members were about to vote on whether to conduct hand recounts of three sample precincts--a minor chore that would produce major headaches. Everyone in the room wanted to offer his or her own opinion, whether the three board members wanted to hear them or not.

"This is really a war," said Jim Scott, a former Fort Lauderdale Republican state senator. "We have to make sure the Democrats don't try to steal this election." He and his law partner, the local GOP leader, protested that Suzanne Gunzburger, one of the Democratic board members, had her own partisan lawyer sitting right next to her during the canvassing board's meetings.

Why couldn't Carroll have her own Republican attorney on hand? Scott protested.

"Look!" he said, pointing. "Gunzburger has her lawyer whispering to her the whole time!"

They are trying to be impartial, South Florida's besieged election officials say, but instead of winning the nation's thanks, they have spent the last week hanging up on death threats, taking legal papers from predawn process servers and listening to whispered threats that old allies may exact retribution if they don't hew to the party line.

Broward County Democratic Judge Robert W. Lee, who turned on his party and voted against a manual recount and then reversed course two days later, came home to find he had threats on his answering machine.

Day after day in Palm Beach County, protesters have marched outside poor Theresa LePore's office window, decrying the Democratic election official's design of the infamous "butterfly ballot" that confused hundreds of elderly voters. "Jeb & LePore = Corruption," one sign read, linking her with GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of the Republican presidential nominee.

"We're acting like a lynch mob here," said Anita Mitchell, a Republican lobbyist and LePore's friend. "It's barbaric."

Two hours after Palm Beach County Commissioner Carol Roberts called for a recount of the county's entire 460,000 votes, she came home to a dark house and 30 messages on her answering machine. "I hope you like your job," one disembodied voice said, "because you won't be around to like it much longer."

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