Florida voting guide

What the heck is going on down there? Could be what has gone on for decades: voter fraud and political corruption. The locals love it.

A Volusia County worker holds up a ballot for review in DeLand, Fla., Monday, Nov. 13, 2000, as the recount continues.

A Volusia County worker holds up a ballot for review in DeLand, Fla., Monday, Nov. 13, 2000, as the recount continues.

Photo By AP Worldwide Photos

While reading about the bizarre in this presidential election, the first thing you must realize about South Florida is that it is just like Northern California … only completely different. Many people believe it is actually another country. At times like this, I tell people it’s actually another planet.

South Florida is both an extremely difficult place to live—because of crumbling infrastructure, racism and unchecked greed—but it’s also a very interesting location to work as a journalist. The coarse politicos running the place can be corrupt and beyond sleazy, and yet they retain a certain charm. It’s maddening, but it also makes for great stories.

Until three months ago, I worked in South Florida as an editor and writer, sadly learning that one should assume that the political system is severely flawed. So when this story broke of voting irregularities, I was flooded with both troubling and fond memories.

Many Florida voters dwell in a magical kingdom, and I don’t mean Disney World. The citizens actually believe the politicians who deny that the political system is corrupt, even after the same politicians are caught and arrested. Journalists tend to get cynical about such things. The voters submit themselves to this most appalling behavior and either just shake their heads or laugh.

And one often laughs at the scariest moments, such as now, when our country’s future hangs in the balance in (yikes!) Florida. For instance, at the height of the constitutional crisis last week, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher stood up and told everyone that it was a time for confidence in the system. Then his lawyer steps up and it’s … oh, my gosh … the former U.S. Attorney for Southern Florida, the less than honorable Kendall Coffey.

Coffey resigned from that office for biting a stripper, very hard, on the ass. At least it was a female stripper.

But like many South Floridians, he’s been allowed to reinvent himself because his misbehavior pales in comparison to the rampant, over-the-top political corruption that thrives there. Coffey surprised many observers by emerging as the lead attorney for the adopted family of Elian Gonzalez, the star of the previous South Florida soap opera to gain international press attention. Last week the Gonzalez family abruptly canceled an award presentation to Coffey because the turncoat had gone over to help the party of the woman who snatched their boy—the despised Janet Reno. Ass-biting, betrayal, voter fraud. See, you gotta love South Florida.

As soon as the absentee ballot issue took center stage, those who have followed Florida politics took a deep, shuddering breath.

The state is nationally famous for having the most corrupt absentee ballot system imaginable. Numerous investigations have thrown out results of local elections and put politicians behind bars. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigator told me the absentee ballot is the “tool of choice” for those inclined to commit voter fraud, and believe me, there are many inclined to do just that.

The most recent and notorious absentee ballot-fraud case threw the mayor of Miami out of office and a city commissioner into the pokey. 1998 was a banner year—undocumented aliens voted, non-city residents voted, people’s votes were bought and absentee ballots were made available for sale! And, of course, the time-honored tradition of dead people voting from the Great Beyond played a part.

What to do? Hey, laugh about it. There’s an annual parade through wacky Coconut Grove, and the winning entry: marchers in the League of Dead Voters.

Certainly this level of fraud is a travesty for the democratic process, but it’s also a journalistic bonanza. The Miami Herald did a great job of canvassing neighborhoods and revealing the voter fraud, with their payoff being the Pulitzer Prize.

The weekly newspaper I worked for captured the depth of the problem when interviewing Humberto Hernandez, the city commissioner who was about to go to jail.

Humbertcito, as his fanatical Cuban-American supporters called him, matter-of-factly said he didn’t think voters cared a bit about fraud. What the city commissioner said stopped the laughter. “If you’ve been here long enough, you know that nobody gives a flying fuck if you ran a clean campaign. Nobody gives a shit if you’re involved in absentee-ballot fraud or what have you. The bottom line is that you won.”

How would that play in Sacramento?

So, you have to wonder, is the current Florida vote rife with fraud, and should it be thrown out? Probably not, but one should keep a skeptical eye on the irregularities. The national and statewide elections are, believe it or not, better run and more highly scrutinized.

That said, the elderly and the people of color in Florida have a rich history of being abuse victims, and there’s no reason to believe it hasn’t just happened again at the polls.

Many of the elderly blacks who endured segregated schools up until the mid-1950s are still suffering from overt racism in Florida. One report last week says a number of blacks were turned away from a polling place by a white man who told them, “You people vote tomorrow.” The Haitians who speak Creole were unable to question their somehow non-existent registrations. It all rings too true.

And the Kings of Confusion, the elderly white retirees? One can assume they were disenfranchised, but I wonder who is to blame? These are the pastel-wearing people who never remember to turn off their turn signals and who will often lurch their 1978 Dodge Coronet into your lane in a hurry to make the early-bird special. Seinfeld had it right.

The easily distracted retirees are usually better organized by the notorious Democratic condo-commandos such as Amadeo “Trinchi” Trinchitella, who told me Bush would be lucky to get 10 percent of the elderly vote. Trinchi wouldn’t trust his own condo-dwellers to vote on their own, so he’d bus them to the polls and hand them “palm cards” as they exited, the better to recall which democrats to vote for. Palm card in one hand, that punch thing in the other. Throw in a confusing “butterfly” ballot in Palm Beach County, and you’ve got trouble. Imagine if there’s a re-vote! The performance pressure will certainly cause some cardiac arrest.

But again, was there enough abuse and fraud to nullify the election? I know for a fact there are people in South Florida capable of it, but it has to be proven in court.

Here in California, the punch card seemed workable, and there haven’t been any reports of outlandish attempts to steal the election. So we’ll focus the media attention where it belongs, on that other planet. And while no outright voter fraud on the level of Humbertcito has yet been revealed, it’s certainly worthwhile to shine a spotlight on the place and see if any political cockroaches crawl out.