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Jewish World Review Nov. 10, 2000 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Mark Lane

Mark Lane
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Ballot messes a Florida tradition -- DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. | It's all very flattering to know our votes count extra hard in Florida. But if I had my druthers, some other state would be the one to have the final say in this election.

It's not that we're the wrong people to dictate what's good for the rest of the county. We're qualified. It's just that when it comes to counting votes, well, we have something of a past.

The English can't cook, Italians can't form governments, Germans can't do comedy and Floridians can't hold an untainted election. It's just a cultural thing.

Only three years ago, Miami's mayoral election was so breathtakingly fraudulent -- even by South Florida standards -- that it was overturned by the courts and 56 people faced criminal charges.

Where I live, in Volusia County, the absentee ballot handling was so irregular four years ago that a court had to declare the winner in the sheriff's race more than two months afterward. To this day, speculating on the identity of "the real sheriff" is a sure-fire way to start a fight in a crowded room.

And the last time the nation looked to Florida to decide the winner in a presidential race in which the popular vote and electoral vote diverged? Oh, don't ask. It was bad. Very bad.

In 1876 Florida only had four electoral votes, but they were the four electoral votes that mattered. With most of the nation's ballots counted, Democrat Samuel J. Tilden was ahead by a quarter million votes and only one electoral vote short of victory. Republican Rutherford B. Hayes needed the electoral votes of Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina to win.

About 50,000 ballots were cast in Florida -- the exact number will never be known -- and Hayes and Tilden were less than 100 votes apart.

Historians think Tilden probably won the state. Who knows? Ballot mishandling, fraud, selective vote counting and intimidation were the rule, not the exception.

Allow me to relate a true hometown story. The town where I live voted overwhelming for Hayes. The man charged with the bringing the votes to the county seat, Loomis Day, had a pretty good idea of how local politics worked and suspected that safe delivery of Republican ballots was not to be taken for granted. (The county seat would be moved to a more convenient place a dozen years later after, yes, another disputed election.)

Day carried the ballot box by wagon but had someone else transport a fake ballot box. Sure enough, the decoy ballot box was snatched en route.

New Year's Day 1877 arrived without an election winner. Pundits of the day speculated about another civil war. Rioting in the streets was expected.

Congress received three different sets of results from Florida. The first canvassing board declared the state for Hayes, a rival board declared it for Tilden and in January 1877, a third board appointed by the new governor certified the election for Tilden.

Ultimately, Congress' Electoral Commission awarded Florida's electoral votes to Hayes. The decision was the culmination a deal that ended Reconstruction and sold out the basic rights of Southern black people for generations but prevented renewed regional conflict.

Given this rich history, you really don't want to depend on Florida elections to pick The leader of The World's Greatest Superpower. I'm not sure I would want Florida's election system to pick the MTV music awards.

Meanwhile in Volusia County there have been mysterious counting fluctuations, ballots found in the back seat of a poll-worker's car and registered voters turned away at the polls. The elections office was wrapped in yellow crime-scene tape on election night. There were lost ballots in South Florida. And in Palm Beach they had a ballot laid out with the clarity of a VCR programming diagram.

The tradition lives.

Comment on JWR contributor Mark Lane's column by clicking here.

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10/27/00: Decided by the undecided


© 2000, M. R. Lane