The old folks to Washington DC: we're mad as hell

The Florida Voters
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When the pedestrian signs blink "Wait" in red, you normally do that because the traffic lights are about to change. In West Palm Beach you stillhave time to cross. Everything is set differently here to make sure the old folks make it safely to the other side.

When the pedestrian signs blink "Wait" in red, you normally do that because the traffic lights are about to change. In West Palm Beach you stillhave time to cross. Everything is set differently here to make sure the old folks make it safely to the other side.

They are slow, some with sticks and Zimmer frames, but they are breathing, as America is finding out. The wrinklies botched their voting ballots last Tuesday and now they are asking to be given another chance. Which might give Al Gore another chance.

Leo Wurzel, 78, a resident of The Fountains, a neat little retirement community just outside West Palm Beach itself, joked: "My son called me last night from New York and he said to me, 'What is going on with Palm Beach County? We thought you were all dead down there'." The Bush campaign wishes everyone in the place were dead.

Very much alive, Mr Wurzel and his golf-playing cronies find themselves at the very nexus of the constitutionalcrisis that is gripping the United States.

You have heard about the 19,000 ballots that were thrown out for double-punching in Palm Beach County. What happened at The Fountains, which makes up a whole precinct, was even worse.

The 368 ballots that were cast there - almost certainly overwhelmingly in favour of Al Gore - vanished from the first tally altogether. A counting official pushed the wrong key on a computer and erased the precinct from the final tally. Of the 751 additional Gore votes found in a recount in this county, almost half came from The Fountains.

Which is why the residents are madder than losers at a bridge game. "Everyone is hysterical here," said Minette Leichman, a 15-year resident in the community and a member of the huge Jewish population in South Florida that voted Gore-Lieberman in massive numbers. "We think all our votes went down the drain."

Retrieving ballots from the U-bend is what may or may not now happen.

A hand-count of 1 per cent of all the votes cast will be undertaken today, on the insistence of the Democratic Party. And final certification of the county numbers, under court order, will be delayed until Tuesday. Without a court ruling for a revote, however, it seems unlikely that the 19,000 votes thrown away will ever be salvaged.

Many in West Palm Beach, as witnessed by the demonstrations outside the elections supervisor's offices on Thursday, will not be satisfied until a revote is held.

And they are not all old or Jewish. This is a more mixed community than the uniformity of the majestic palm trees in the city would suggest. There are young people and middle-class people. And a very large community of blacks too.

"Something in the milk ain't right," was the observation of Joe Melvin, a roofer and an African American who could be found yesterday morning resting on a bench with a can of Heineken. He lives a few blocks from the gleaming downtown of West Palm Beach, in an incongruously scruffy neighbourhood of dwellings that almost qualify as shanties.

Not that Mr Melvin has much of a voice. Once convicted on drugs charges, he is barred from voting. But he knows what should happen. They should vote in the county all over again.

Joseph Paine, a handyman, agrees. He didn't bother to vote on Tuesday. Will he vote if the county is allowed to hold elections again? "I think we would all vote now," he said, sweeping his hand at the surrounding homes. For Gore, of course.

If this neighbourhood is the wrong side of the tracks, all of West Palm Beach is the wrong side of the water. You need to cross a bridge to the slither of land in the Atlantic where you will find Palm Beach proper, a Disneyesque fantasy of extremely fine living. Giant mansions hide behind weeping fig hedges, jewellery boutiques line the shopping avenues and all the cars are of the European luxury variety.

Howard Baur, 73, is not yet in the Zimmer brigade. Instead he rides, albeit a little unsteadily, to the Publix supermarket to do a little shopping once a week. He did, however, make a mess of his voting card on Tuesday. The instructions told him to push the so-called "butterfly ballot", which had candidates' names on either side of the holes that had to be punched through with a needle, all the way into the metal holder. He pushed a little too enthusiastically and it crumpled.

His story is a bit different from those we have been hearing of officials rushing people to vote, refusing to give confused citizens a second chance and even turning some away for arriving too late. "I called them to give a new one and they did immediately. It was no problem, they couldn't have been nicer," Mr Baur said yesterday.

The front entrance to Publix is a bit of a gathering place for old fogies on a sunny morning. With Howard, there was Ed and Russ, not to mention Howard's dog, Jesse. They were as animated as anyone in town about the election fiasco. But they were clear that Bush had won here fair and square and everyone should quit their whining.

"There was nothing wrong with the ballots," insisted Ed. "Those people just don't read properly or they weren't paying attention. What happened was their fault and nobody else's."

Try telling that to the more Democrat-minded residents of The Fountains. It is one thing understanding what do with a ballot that seemed confusing. It is another when your votes get vaporised by an election official who was careless or worse.

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