This is the story of what happened to me on Election Day, Nov. 2, 2004, in Clay County, FL.
Understanding some of what happened requires a bit of background information. At the time of the election, I had been living in Clay County for just over a year.
Orange Park, where I was, is just south of Jacksonville, FL, which, for those who don't know, is in the far northeastern corner of the state. It is very close to Georgia, and for those who think Florida is not the South, well, you should visit there and reconsider your position. Clay is the most Republican county in the state, as far as election performance goes. Nevertheless, it was still easier to live there than in Duval County (Jacksonville), for me at least, because there was a lot less overt hostility toward people of different views. Some of the old rural idea that you let your neighbors alone still pertained. (If I were African-American or Latina, this might not have held true. I don't know.)
More below the fold...
I had lived in Duval County, home of the 27,000 thrown-away votes from primarily black precincts, in 2000, and had been part of an attempt to organize against that locally once it happened. So, naturally, in 2004 I was raring to go be a poll watcher. But I also felt it was less likely that there would be fraud where I was, because, I reasoned, why would John Ellis Bush need to steal votes from the most Republican county in his state? Around the time of early voting, word came back from some Democrats who had lived a long time in the county (there were some, and they really kept their heads down) that they did not trust the Supervisor of Elections. But again, I thought, why would the governor need to rig this county? And I'd met her, and she seemed fine to me.
So I trained for poll watching feeling proud of the work I was going to do, but also not anticipating any crisis where I was. After all, it wasn't Dade County (Miami) or Palm Beach. I thought we were flying under the radar. The county mostly used optical scan machines, and the word was that we were to stay with the paper ballots at all costs. This ended up being important.
I was paired with my friend Kate, who is diabetic, and only has sight in one eye. Her sight was good enough for the detailed work of watching polls, but not good enough for night driving--another detail that ended up mattering a lot. She watched for the party, and I watched for our Congressional candidate, Dave Bruderly. There was a woman watching for the Republican party at the table with us, who was perfectly polite and seemed bemused by the amount of actual work we were doing--because we weren't just there to watch for "irregularities." We were checking off "our" voters as they came in, and phoning back to HQ to let our workers know who hadn't yet voted, so that they could call them and offer them rides to the polls. This meant that we had to listen for people's names, but I preferred not to hover behind the poll workers with a clipboard marking things off--I felt it might seem a bit off-putting to the voters. So we sat behind at a table and kept our ears pricked.
The clerk of the precinct was one of the most honorable men I had ever seen, if his handling of his duties was any indication. He had "former military" written all over him, and was probably navy, because the bulk of the military in that county was. He worked so hard trying to get people their voting rights, which was not always easy, because Florida's laws are very picky about where you vote, and people were getting bad information somewhere. Some people came to us having already been to two or three precincts; some had been sent to the wrong county to vote; some did not speak English as a native language and were first-time voters and had to deal with what seemed, as time wore on, to be a constant run-around. The clerk got on the phone, tried to see if people could vote with us, and, if not, did his best to find out where they actually needed to be. He spent a lot of time, and treated everyone with respect. A good man. That night, I saw the "W" on his car, and thought: "George Bush doesn't deserve him."
Everything was fine until the early afternoon, when a man in his late twenties or early thirties came in. He had a name tag on, like ours, but it was turned facing his chest. One of my first mistakes of many was not demanding that he turn it around. But he sat down at our table, and his rather obnoxious attitude, as well as some actions he took, made me assume that he was my opposite number--a poll watcher for a Republican candidate, probably Cliff Stearns, our incumbent Congressman.
One of the first things he did was procure an electric pencil sharpener and some pencils, and start sharpening them at the table, making it impossible for us to hear names. Second mistake: I should have called him on this. But I thought, this is too trivial for me to make a fuss here and now; I'm on hostile territory and I should save my fussing for something serious--if it comes up. So I merely got up and stood behind the poll workers. After a while, he finished with the pencils. The next obnoxious thing he did was make comments about my friend as she walked across the room. Being diabetic, she was also overweight, and he felt the need to comment on this. This really cheesed me, and I guess he saw that, because he stopped, and a few minutes later, said "I've got to go call my boss." He took out his cell phone and stepped outside.
After a few minutes, he came back and sat down. A few minutes after that, the phone in the church kitchen began to ring. This was the only phone--the only landline--at the polling place. After a few rings, he said, "I'll get it," and walked into the kitchen. I heard him pick up the phone and talk, but couldn't hear what was said. He hung up and came back to the table. A little after 3:00 p.m., the kitchen phone began to ring again. The guy said "I'll get it" again, and went into the kitchen. I heard the phone cut off in mid-ring, but didn't hear his voice. After a minute, he came back to the table.
No one that I saw went into the kitchen alone after that point.
At 7:00 p.m., when the polls closed, the kitchen phone did not work. The poll workers were unable to modem their results in to the Supervisor of Elections.
They began discussing what to do. I was shocked to see the man who had been in the kitchen with the phone bending over the open voting machine. It was only then that I found out that he was--at least purportedly--a voting machine technician rather than a poll watcher.
An argument ensued between the technician and the clerk of the precinct. The tech wanted to take the memory card from the machine immediately, take it down to the Supervisor of Elections' office, and get the information off of it. The clerk said, "That might be right from a technical standpoint, but it's not right from an Election Boards standpoint." (I don't know the law in other states, but in Florida, no one other than the clerk of the precinct is supposed to be alone with that data until it reaches the SOE.) The clerk would not allow him to take the card. Both the clerk and the tech got on their cell phones to the Supervisor of Elections' office, trying to get authorization for their positions. Meanwhile, I got on the phone to HQ trying to find out what to do, because we had not prepared for a situation such as this--our default mode was, stay with the paper ballots, but the situation seemed very fishy, and I didn't like the idea of letting the guy just walk away with the card. I left Kate to monitor the situation while I called.
According to Kate, the clerk had trouble getting through to someone of sufficient authority to give him an answer--or, at least, the technician reached someone much more quickly than he did. The tech apparently got to the SOE herself. He handed the cell phone to the clerk. Apparently, the SOE ordered him to release the card to the tech. I'm aware that neither I nor Kate could testify to what was said on the other ends of those conversations, but the results make the contents of the conversations seem pretty certain. (Also, if anyone wants Kate's first-hand account of these events, I could probably get it for you, depending on how good her sight currently is, and whether she's able to type it out again.)
When I got back in, having reached someone at HQ who was going to get in touch with our Vice-Chair and get back to me, the tech and a poll worker were wrapping the memory card in bubble wrap. The tech put the card under his arm and turned toward the door. I ran to the clerk and said, "Is he taking the memory card?" The clerk pressed his lips together, closed his eyes, and nodded.
I burst out the door after him. I couldn't get in touch with HQ in time to get directions. I was left to my own initiative, and blew it good. Because I knew we were not supposed to leave the paper votes, and I knew the paper votes were going to be leaving the polling place shortly, and Kate, being night-blind, could not drive after them as we were supposed to. Only I could do that, and I couldn't both do that and drive after the tech who was walking away with the memory card.
As I ran after him, unsure what to do, many things ran quickly through my mind.
I could go to the press. No, the local press was owned by a neoconservative from Georgia, sort of a mini-Rupert Murdoch. No help there.
The Supervisor of Elections was obviously out of the question. No help there.
I could go to the cops. This would have been the best bet. Except that it was an evangelical Republican county in the South, the cops were mostly Republicans, and I was working for the Democrats. The only thing that would have made going to the cops work--possibly--is if I had been a long-term resident. If I'd had a personal connection with one or more people at the Sheriff's office. Then I might have had a chance of getting them to listen to my side. But as it was, I was a liberal girl associated with the Democratic party, and I'd lived in the county for only a year. In a county where Democrats hide their party affiliation, and no Democrat had run for local office in ten years.
No help there.
He was walking away, and he was smirking.
I realized that the only way to stop him was physically.
Everything slowed down. Every emotion I was feeling went away. I realized that, although I'd never been in a fight in my life, I could stop him. All I had to do was take him by surprise, and not care what happened to me. I saw clearly exactly what I had to do. With no emotion at all. Except that I realized I wanted to do it.
Realizing that might have been the most horrible thing to happen to me on election night. But I didn't feel that then. I didn't feel anything, except an almost physical `pull' toward the guy, toward doing what I could clearly see would stop him. I fought the pull, even though I didn't know what the right thing to do was. There was no right thing to do. Seriously injure, maybe kill a guy--not right. Stand and watch him carry away the votes I'd sworn to protect--not right.
I thought, "He's carrying my country away under his arm. Aren't we supposed to defend the Republic?" But I fought against the pull. And won. I guess. I guess it was a victory.
I didn't realize Kate had burst out the door right behind me. She had seen the look on my face, and knew what it meant, and had come out to stop me if necessary. But it wasn't necessary.
It's hard to write this. There's a `black hole' feeling that comes back over me. Cold beyond cold. Like falling down a well into icy water and not being able to get purchase to get out. Sometimes I think a piece of me froze back there and never thawed.
My Vice-Chair called me back. I told her the guy was gone. She said, get his name. I went back inside, and asked the clerk, "Do you know that guy's name?"
He bristled. "I know who he works for. I know who I was talking to on the phone." I said, "I'm sorry, but I'm here to witness any irregularities." He said, "The irregularity is that the phone didn't work." He wouldn't give me his name.
I hope I don't offend anyone by saying this, but his response seemed very much that of a military man: he stood up for what he thought was right, until his superior ordered him to do something else; he obeyed that order, letting me know--non-verbally--that he thought it was wrong. But he would not admit in words that something was wrong. Not once his superior had given him an order. Not to a subordinate, or to someone outside the chain of command, and as a poll watcher in his precinct, I was--in an odd way--both.
We followed the paper ballots to the supervisor of elections' office. We wrote down our reports of what we saw. (Later I found out that our incompetent DEC chair threw them out, along with all the other paperwork from the election. Including voter file information that we had spent weeks assembling by knocking on doors.)At that point, I still had hope. I thought, Florida's probably screwed, but the rest of the country will bail us out. I still believed we would win.
I went home and spent a long time in the shower.
I never knew--in my gut, not my head--that I was capable of killing someone till that night.
Later, when I found out the election wasn't going well, it was like being swallowed in a black hole. That feeling was familiar to me from 2000. But this time it was worse. As the three of us in my household clung to each other on my bed, the word that kept repeating in my head was "Gethsemane."
As an academic, I know what constitutes proof. I know that this story doesn't. If it did, I would be telling it to a judge or a U.N. observer or the Carter Center or someone official, not putting it on DKos. But I also know what constitutes enough evidence to warrant investigation. And this qualifies.
As someone who values logic, I see no reason--have never seen any reason--why John Ellis Bush, who appoints the Secretary of State that oversees FL elections, who can appoint Supervisors of Elections and remove them, who therefore is capable of fixing the vote in Florida, who we know rigged the vote for his brother four years before, would just decide to stop fixing the vote and let his brother take his chances. And allow the people of Florida a free choice.
As a human being who sat in that precinct and saw these events, I have no doubt whatsoever that fraud happened in that precinct in that county, and that the Supervisor of Elections was either willingly complicit in it or getting her arm twisted until she cooperated. That is my opinion, based on the evidence, and it is firm. It is not an accusation, because an accusation requires proof, and to get proof, an investigation of these events was needed. It never happened.