Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 2002/ 17 Tishrei, 5763

Wesley Pruden

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Restoring suspense to election night | Florida has raised election-day disaster to an art form. The presidential election of double-aught, as it turns out, was not mere happenstance.

The precincts of voodoo, blue hair and pregnant chads that sprang Janet Reno on an unsuspecting nation screwed up again in the Sept. 10 primary.

Only this week could state election officials finally say for sure that Bill McBride is the Democratic candidate to oppose Jeb Bush in November. Pat Buchanan, the accidental choice of elderly Jewish widows in '00 and who was not even on the ballot this year, might have won a recount. In Florida, you never know.

The counties that held the world in thrall two Novembers ago are still at it. In Broward County - that's Fort Lauderdale - judges forgot to open the polls in dozens of precincts on Sept. 10 and it was midmorning before voters could get at the new touch-screen computers. A lot of voters could have stood in bed, and some did.

The chairman of the Broward County Commission told the supervisor of elections that unless she submitted to county oversight of the Nov. 5 general election, she wouldn't get the $3.8 million needed to pay for Election Day. "If she doesn't," the chairman said, "she stands on her own."

It shouldn't matter that the chairman is white and the supervisor is black, but since race colors everything, it does. The supervisor, Miriam Oliphant, adamantly refused to consider the county commission taking oversight of the Nov. 5 election in Broward.

Everyone agreed that Mzz Oliphant needs help, that the primary in Broward County had been a disaster and in fact black voters had taken the hardest hit. Black politicians had to choose between making sure their constituents get a square deal on Nov. 5, or turning it into a racial stink. That choice was easy.

"An offer to abdicate all your power is not an offer," cried state Rep. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, a Democrat. He suggested that the commission chairman wanted to perform a surgical impossibility on the supervisor of elections: "An offer to publicly castrate you is not an offer. That's a disgusting power grab."

The only black member of the county commission suggested that the public castration of poor Mzz Oliphant was the least of what his white colleagues had in mind. "I'm very concerned about this assassination of black elected officials in Broward County," he said. "These are not Republicans who are assassinating us. These are Democrats who happen to be of a different hue." The Broward Times, a black-oriented weekly, speculated that it was all a white plot to undermine the supervisor's office.

Mzz Oliphant finally backed down at week's end after Jeb Bush and the secretary of state asked the U.S. Justice Department to intervene, to make sure that all voters - prominently including black voters - get a fair shake on Election Day.

Election officials in Florida were on notice not to repeat the fiasco of '00, which made the state fodder for standup comedians for months. Florida had two options, wrote columnist Dave Barry in the Miami Herald: a simpler system ("Solution A") or a more complicated system ("Solution B"). "Pretty much any life form with a central nervous system, including a reasonably bright squid, would choose Solution A. So naturally our election officials went with Solution B."

Since Florida voters were unable to master a system of punching holes in cardboard in '00, election officials naturally assumed that voters unable to punch holes in cardboard would find using computers a breeze.

Computers, in fact, are restoring suspense to election nights. Newspapers are even printing extras again because the counting, once finished by midnight or a little after, can stretch into the rest of the week. When I cast my first ballot in a previous century the precinct judge handed over a paper ballot and a No. 2 pencil with instructions to cross out the names of the candidates we didn't want, leaving only one name unmarked by human hands. Nothing since has accorded the pleasure of drawing heavy black lines through the names of all those unwanted pols. Some names required several black lines before satisfaction was achieved. I broke the lead in my Eberhard Faber often.

When we went to a paper ballot with prim little boxes and instructed to place a dignified "X" in the prim little box beside the name of the favored candidate, the ladies of the League of Women Voters were pleased, but almost nobody else was. Then came progress, and voting machines, and now computers, and with them election-day disasters, and a slow, steady decline in turnout. Maybe you think that's coincidence.

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JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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