Bogus ballot papers, blocks and bungles

Accusations fly as the Rev Jesse Jackson arrives in Florida to assert black voters' rights and poll fallout reveals yet more irregularities
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The Independent US

Never mind that Alman Spence, the pastor at the Home of God Miracle Temple, is busy replastering one of the crumbling walls in his tiny church. He is glad to have someone willing to hear his story at last. He tried telling the police but they were not interested.

Never mind that Alman Spence, the pastor at the Home of God Miracle Temple, is busy replastering one of the crumbling walls in his tiny church. He is glad to have someone willing to hear his story at last. He tried telling the police but they were not interested.

On election day last Tuesday, when Mr Spence, 71, went to his polling station in this mostly black neighbourhood of West Palm Beach, he spotted two men loitering outside holding stacks of what appeared to be ballot papers. It was not clear what they planned to do with them, but it seemed that something fishy was going on.

"I called the police as soon as I got home," Mr Spence says, "because these must have been bogus ballot papers or something." He speculates that they might have been pre-punched and later smuggled into a ballot box in the station.

Nobody is following up his claims. But then there have been so many stories of polling screw-ups here in South Florida - some suggesting nothing more than ineptitude, others pointing to fraud and intimidation - that clearing them all up would probably defy even the elections-monitoring department of the UN.

Most attention so far has been focused on the design of the so-called "butterfly ballots" that had names for candidates confusingly laid out on either side of a central column of holes that voters had to punch. More than 19,000 ballots from the 531,000 cast in this county had to be thrown out because they had been punched twice.

But the fiasco did not stop there. Add up all the irregularities that have been reported and you might conclude that Florida's democracy is dodgier than Cuba's.

Many of the complaints have come from African-Americans, who are pressing en masse for a revote in Palm Beach County and elsewhere. They are expected to turn out in huge numbers for a protest in Miami tomorrow, urged on by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the president of the Rainbow Coalition. Attracted like a moth to a flame by any controversy involving black rights, Mr Jackson was already in the state by Wednesday.

He insists that scores of blacks were prevented from voting across the state. Most commonly, it seems, they were turned away from polling stations because their names had mysteriously vanished from the electoral rolls.

Sometimes people went to the advertised location of polling stations only to find them shut. Others were allegedly sent away at 7pm when they were still queueing. Stations are meant to close at that time, but under Florida law they must accommodate all those already waiting.

And the State Highway Patrol is being forced to answer questions after a group of white officers set up a roadblock close to a polling station in an overwhelmingly black neighbourhood outside Tallahassee, ostensibly to check driving licences. Many blacks may have chosen not to vote to avoid having to run the police gauntlet.

Much else that should not have happened did, according to Mr Jackson. He accuses the Florida Governor, Jeb Bush, the brother of George W Bush, of illegally using paper with the state seal to lobby potential absentee voters to vote Republican. He says he also has evidence of foul play in the large community of Haitian-Americans here, many of whom speak only Creole. Some, he alleged, were shown photographs of Al Gore and then told by unknown interlopers to punch the number that matched Mr Bush.

The victims in Precinct 29E were all white. Or rather, mostly white, old and Jewish. The precinct is composed entirely of The Fountains, a retirement community. Residents were furious when they learned a poll worker had lost their votes by pressing an erase key on his computer. State officials said it was an accident.

Sometimes the chaos was inadvertent, even comical. Take Precinct 162J in Boynton Beach, in a waterworks plant. At 6.15pm, a timer turned off the lights and closed the gates. The supervisor had to call emergency services to get them open again. The police eventually came, but not before tens of voters had turned up and gone home without voting, thinking the station was closed.

The mayhem in many of the stations was too much for most of the poll workers, who got only two hours' training, were paid about £60 for the day and were very often elderly. (The young have jobs to go to.)

Under the law, voters who realised that they had botched their ballot papers should have been given a second chance so long as they had not put the spoiled one in the box already. But most of the workers did not know that. And when they rang the Supervisor of Elections' office in West Palm Beach for help, they could not get through because the line was permanently engaged. "We called five or six hundred times," said Melvin Adolphson, a precinct clerk at a West Palm Beach polling station that became overwhelmed by voters refusing to leave because they had spoiled their ballots. "We got through three times all day."

Florida is not without experience in these matters. Three years ago, a Miami judge had to remove the city's mayor days after he had been elected because of fraud that some said was Mafia-instigated. The judge found the tiny margin of victory came from absentee ballots sent in by voters who either were dead or did not exist.

As West Palm Beach tries to sort out the mess - a hand recount of 1 per cent of the votes cast had been planned for yesterday - Republicans are calling Democrats sore losers.

Mr Jackson insists he wants only to defend voters' rights, not to give Florida - and therefore the White House - to Mr Gore. Believe that, if you like.

But Mr Spence says the same. "If it's clear that Bush won, then this doesn't call for a re-election," he said, "because we shouldn't put Florida and the whole country through this agony for much longer, and because the rest of the world is laughing at us."