All roads lead to Olive Street and 19,000 voters who have punched a hole in the history books

Centre of the Storm
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The Independent US

In the suburbs of West Palm Beach it was a normal day: cream-coloured Cadillacs drawing into golf clubs, perfect palms swaying in the breeze. And yesterday, to ensure absolute neatness, there were blue-shirted county workers roaming the avenues removing election signs and posters. The election is over, after all.

In the suburbs of West Palm Beach it was a normal day: cream-coloured Cadillacs drawing into golf clubs, perfect palms swaying in the breeze. And yesterday, to ensure absolute neatness, there were blue-shirted county workers roaming the avenues removing election signs and posters. The election is over, after all.

Except it is not. The first sign that something was up in this city's manicured downtown area was the television network helicopters hovering overhead. On Olive Street, outside the county elections offices, an angry knot of citizens was blocking all traffic and shouting "Gore Had More" and "Revote".

Their anger was directed at the windows of the Department of Elections building where, behind the glass, stood the officials who decided on Tuesday to throw out 19,000 of the ballots cast in the county because they were double-punched.

Olive Street yesterday was the turbulent epicentre of the constitutional storm that has brought the selection process for the next American president to a grinding halt. And last night it was threatening to spread all across Florida.

Allegations of a mishandled election continue to mount. Democrats claim so many people punched their cards twice in this county, because the names of Al Gore and the Reform Party candidate, Pat Buchanan, appeared almost alongside each other. Confused voters ending up punching for both men, they contend.

But there may have been other problems. Black leaders cried foul in Florida, insisting that huge numbers of African Americans were illegally prevented from voting. Anger in the black community in the Miami area is mounting, and although Florida is not on the brink of insurrection, any attempt to give the state to George W Bush could trigger much greater unrest.

The Rev Jesse Jackson who called yesterday's protest in West Palm Beach, did not turn up at the appointed hour, but maybe a thousand other people did. And they were not all Gore supporters; Bush voters arrived too and there were angry confrontations as the two sides harangued each other.

"Al Gore is an absolute communist puke," Douglas Maher raged at Shirley Markswitt, a retired teacher and a Gore supporter. She carried a placard emblazoned "Recount"; he had his old Bush-Cheney poster. Within seconds of meeting they were shouting at each other, eyes bulging with anger. "There is no way, there is going to be recount. You're stupid if you think that," he bellowed. "You're wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong," she replied, almost unable to breathe.

Ms Markswitt doesn't know if her ballot was among those that were thrown away. "I studied the ballot paper carefully before I went into the booth and still I was confused when I saw it," she said. "I had a friend with me who almost certainly voted for Buchanan by mistake."

There does seem to be something fishy about the original returns - a fact that even Mr Buchanan concedes. He garnered 3,407 votes in a place that is normally heavily Democrat. If his vote had followed the pattern of other Florida counties, he would have got 1,000 at most - suggesting that Mr Gore was robbed of at least 2,400 votes, enough to change everything. It is on that basis that three voters have filed a lawsuit demanding a recount. An emergency court hearing on its admissibility was scheduled for later yesterday.

Robert Wexler, a US representative from the area, said: "Hundreds of people spoke to me before the polls closed about their extraordinary confusion. I myself when I went into the polls was confused. I saw the people who came out of the polling places. They were crying. They were in tears. They were hysterical." Lillian Gaines, 67, from West Palm Beach, was among them. "I came out totally confused," she said. "I don't know whether I have thrown away my vote and voted for Buchanan. If I did that I think I would drop dead."

And it may not be just in West Palm Beach that things went awry. Addressing a packed congregation at the New Birth Baptist Church in North Miami late on Wednesday, Jesse Jackson suggested widespread irregularities, including two ballot boxes going missing and intimidation of Creole-speaking Haitian immigrants in Miami. To loud cheers, he told supporters not to rest until a recount is held.

"Whoever wins should accept with honour and with grace and whoever loses should respect the process," said Mr Jackson, who was surrounded by leaders of Florida's unions and its Jewish and Haitian communities. "We don't know who won. In the interest of our democracy, we need more than a recount, we need a thorough investigation."

In West Palm Beach, those looking through the windows of the elections office might have strained to identify one person - the county election supervisor Theresa LePore. She has admitted she personally redesigned the ballots in the county because she was trying to make them clearer.

Her talent for confusion is evident in an election-day message she sent to ballot station workers when complaints began flooding in: "Please remind all voters coming in that they are to vote on for one (1) presidential candidate and that they are to punch the hole next to the arrow next to the number next to the candidate they wish to vote for." Pardon?

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