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Another Florida election debacle, and its political lessons
By Patrick Martin
16 September 2002
On Tuesday, September 10, voters in the state of Florida went to the
polls in the first statewide balloting since the disputed
presidential contest of 2000. Several million people cast ballots to
determine the Democratic and Republican candidates for the November 5
general election, with most of the attention focused on the
Democratic gubernatorial contest.
Former US Attorney General Janet Reno, millionaire lawyer Bill
McBride and state legislator Daryl Jones were the three Democrats on
the ballot seeking the nomination to challenge incumbent Florida
Governor Jeb Bush, the president's brother.
Despite assurances from the Republican-controlled state government
and Democratic-controlled local governments in south Florida that
there would be no repetition of the 2000 election, when hundreds of
thousands were denied the right to vote, the result of the primary
election was another debacle.
Preliminary results of the vote-counting showed McBride with 601,008
votes, or 44.5 percent, and Reno with 592,812 votes, or 43.9 percent.
Jones, a black state senator from Miami, had 156,358 votes, or 11.6
percent. But the initial returns were immediately challenged by the
Reno campaign, amid reports of widespread failures of new voting
machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the south Florida region
which was Reno's political base.
Voters reported that many polling places were not open at 7 a.m., as
required by state law. Local election officialsDemocrats in both
countiesblamed a poor turnout among the elderly volunteers who staff
the precincts. They also cited problems in the operation of the new
computer-based touchscreen systems adopted by most of the state's
major urban counties. After the 2000 election, the state of Florida
outlawed the punchcard ballots that had resulted in hundreds of
thousands of overvotes and undervotes.
In many precincts the county employees assigned to the job were
unable to boot up the computers used to run the touchscreens and
tabulate the votes. In others, the systems were mis-programmed,
counting Republican ballots as Democratic, or vice versa. The Miami
Herald cited the example of one precinct in the city that reported a
total vote of zero for the entire day.
McBride was leading Reno by 8,196 votes in the official canvass, just
above the margin of 0.5 percent6,751 voteswhich would automatically
force a statewide recount of voting machine totals. Reno requested
the statewide recount immediately, citing reports of thousands of
uncounted ballots in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where she was
winning 70 percent of the vote. The Republican-controlled state
election commission denied the request.
Local officials in Miami-Dade found more than 1,818 previously
uncounted ballots in only four precincts, and were expected to locate
thousands more in 81 other precincts being checked before the
September 17 deadline for filing amended vote totals. Reno's aides
also raised concerns about the results reported from 249 precincts in
Broward County, where vote totals were unexpectedly low, suggesting
that there was a problem in downloading data from the machines.
These new figures could bring Reno within the margin required to
force a statewide recount, or even put her narrowly ahead. Alan
Greer, Reno's attorney, said that if the state election commission
continued to refuse a recount under those circumstances, "I think
they would be courting political suicide. I think this state would
rise up in almost bloody revolution if she is treated that way."
There are several political observations to make about this sequence
of events, which revives memories of the month-long political crisis
that culminated in the US Supreme Court intervention to suppress the
vote-counting in Florida and award the presidency to George W. Bush.
Reno's own candidacy embodies the decomposition of Democratic Party
liberalism. It is extraordinary that a political figure whose record
as attorney general included ordering the assault on the Branch
Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, in which 80 people died, many of
them small children, should be considered the "left" alternative
among the Democrats, with her principal voting base among minority,
gay and elderly voters in south Florida.
The Clinton administration had the worst record on civil liberties of
any recent American government except its successor, with Reno
steadfastly supporting the expansion of federal wiretapping and
surveillance powers. She also facilitated the right-wing conspiracy
against the president who appointed her to head the Justice
Department, most importantly when she agreed to allow Independent
Counsel Kenneth Starr to expand his investigation of Whitewater to
include Clinton's sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky.
But Reno was considered too closely identified with the Clinton
administration and liberal policies in relation to civil rights and
gay rights for the Democratic Party establishment in Florida. When
she returned to her home statewhere she had been state's attorney in
Miami-Dade Countyto run for governor, the state party cast about for
an alternative, eventually settling on McBride, managing partner of
the state's biggest law firm and a longtime behind-the-scenes power
in Democratic Party politics.
While Reno had led by a wide margin in opinion polls earlier this
year, McBride had the support of most state Democratic politicians,
the state AFL-CIO and most Florida newspapers, and outspent Reno by a
wide margin. He emphasized his service as a Vietnam War veteran,
focusing on more conservative and rural areas in north and central
Florida. By primary day, McBride was believed slightly ahead, with
the outcome depending mainly on turnout in heavily populated south
In the wake of the September 10 fiasco, McBride claimed victory, and
publicly declined to embrace the slogan "count every vote," issued by
the Democratic campaign in 2000 during the conflict over the
presidential election. It was "time to get on with the election," he
said, although he added, "We've had those problems before, where
people appeared to be trying to take something that they didn't
deserve. I'm not like that."
Asked if this was a criticism of Bush, and if he was suggesting that
Bush had not won Florida, McBride dismissed the question,
saying, "I'm not going there. It's not part of our election."
This exchange only underscores why the Democrats could not mount any
serious opposition to the Republican theft of the 2000 election. The
Democratic Party establishment is no more committed to the defense of
democratic principles than the Republicans. They employed the same
methods to suppress voter turnout that their Republican opponents
carried outwith far greater effectin 2000. They even targeted the
same social groupsminority and largely working class voters in south
Floridafor denial of voting rights.
Republican spokesmen gleefully jumped on this example of hypocrisy on
the part of the Democrats. A spokesman for Governor Jeb Bush
denounced suggestions that he was responsible for the problems in the
primary balloting. "That's just not an argument that's going to
resonate," the Bush aide said. "It's going to be difficult for
Democrats to capitalize on this by blaming the governor without
reminding voters that the Democratic nominee, Bill McBride, didn't
want all the votes counted."
National Republican operatives made similar comments. Typical was the
appearance of Alex Castellanos on the CNN program Crossfire September
12. In response to criticism of Jeb Bush, Castellanos declared, "What
you should do is tell about the Democrats' dirty little secret in
Florida. And that's that the Democratic power brokers in Florida were
warned that these two counties weren't getting ready months ago. And
you know what? They did nothing. And you know why? Because this is
Janet Reno's base, and they didn't want Janet Reno on the ballot."
Program co-host Robert Novak, a vitriolic right-winger, added that
the Democrats "had to undermine her vote in those two counties. Isn't
Such comments are unintentionally revealing. It is no doubt true that
the Democratic Party establishment in Florida deliberately, through
inaction and failing to upgrade the electoral machinery, deprived
thousands of their voting rights in the 2002 primary. By the same
token, however, the denial of voting rights to hundreds of thousands
in the 2000 electiondue to antiquated machinery, poorly designed
ballots, deliberate purging of minority voters from the registration
rolls for a variety of false reasons, outright intimidation of
minority voters on their way to the pollswas deliberate, and on a
far larger scale.
The Republicans, moreover, based their campaign to halt manual vote
recounts, as ordered by the state Supreme Court, on the anti-
democratic argument that the US Constitution did not ensure the right
of the electorate to vote for US president.
The defense of democratic rights cannot be entrusted to any section
of the big business parties, Democratic or Republican. It requires
the building of an independent political movement of the working
class, which will have as one of its principal tasks the defense and
extension of democratic rights, including the right to vote.
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