Thursday, July 29th, 2004

Remember Florida

All this talk about votes just takes me back 4 years. As do these reports from Florida, even though they don’t point back directly to 2000.

So I went back and unearthed my reporting from November 2000 for 360hiphop.com. I was sent down on the night after the elections to cover the recount in Miami and West Palm Beach. I hung out with Gihan and Tony, two kick-ass organizers from the Miami Workers Center, in Liberty City interviewing residents. Then we got a call from one of their workers in North Miami. What happened next, well read this (it’s presented just as it ran on 360hiphop):

GUNZ N BUTTA GOES IN SEARCH OF LOST BALLOT BOXES

BY: Jeff Chang

In Florida, as the presidential election goes into vote-count limbo, everywhere is war and rumors of war. Then we heard about a lost ballot box. Gunz N Butta fights for democracy.

The road to West Palm Beach is jammed with Democratic party operatives and reporters. Stakes is high. And on the narrow, pastel streets, the strangest protest crowd of the longest presidential run in history has gathered.

The re-vote revolt is being led by white legislative aides, rank-and-file unionists, Jews and Christians, and a significant contingent of elderly black women who have brought along two generations of daughters. There’s even an angry young Republican woman who believes more in saving the system more than preserving a Bush victory.

A voteless mob is an angry mob.

As the parade of Democratic legislators step to the podium to ask for recount, the crowd corrects them with roars of “Re-Vote!” They don’t want compromise, they want their ballot back.

Back in Miami, where dead people turned out to elect a Mayor three years ago, the mood is conspiratorial. There are rumors of Jeb Bush pushing his weight behind the scenes, and unopened ballot boxes sitting in polling places.

Treva Landrum voted where she lives, in the Liberty City housing projects officially called the Liberty Square Housing Development, but better known as The Pork-and-Beans. While turnout was the highest she’s ever seen, she says she feels that quite a few of her neighbors were denied their right to vote.

“It’s probably a lot of ballots being missing, a lot of the ballot boxes not being in the proper place,” she says. At the Miami Worker’s Center where she works, she says she’s had a few calls about a missing ballot box in North Miami.

“A lot of people know that there is something not clean about this election,” Treva says. “I believe that a lot of people want to see Bush in the seat. I believe a lot of people was paid, people that work the precincts were paid. I really feel that.”

“We need to do an election all over again, and they need to have policemen at every precinct to make sure everything go right,” she says. “I ain’t saying that police ain’t corrupt too! But we need that.”

At 6:00 P.M., after most of the ballots have been recounted, we begin the search for a lost ballot box.

Tony Romano and Gihan Perera, the twentysomethings who run the Miami Worker’s Center, have heard from one of their members, a Haitian American nurse who believes she has seen a ballot box sitting in a nursing home she used to work at in North Miami.

Along with Geraldine Borders, we jump into Gihan’s Jeep and head up to the home. The nurse is nervous, tells Gihan to turn the lights down as we approach the Grand Court nursing home at 280 Sierra Avenue. It’s infectious, and soon we are plotting our Mission Impossible in low voices.

Tony says, “We should just bust in the place and be like, yo, what’s this here?”

The others disagree. Gihan says, “We should scope it out first and then try to figure out what to do.”

Finally, we agree on a plan. Tony will walk in the home and say he’s looking for a place for his mother and wants to check out the nursing home. He’ll ask to use the bathroom, so he can wander around to see if a ballot box is really there. Then he’ll holler at us on the cell phone.

He changes out of his green Palmeiras soccer jersey into Gihan’s V-neck and strides down the block, rehearsing his lines in his head.

Gihan pulls the jeep around the corner. As we pass the home, the nurse ducks down and insists he turn off the car lights. Gihan and I dial information to get numbers for black churches, the Board of Elections, and the NAACP, and the nurse’s blood pressure starts to rise. “He’s not back yet,” she groans after a few minutes.

“Hang on”, says Gihan.

A few more minutes. “He’s not back yet! Let’s go get him,” she cries.

“Hang on!” says Gihan. We wait in the darkness.

Then the cellie rings. Gihan puts the call on the speaker.

“Yo”, Tony whispers, “there’s definitely a box in here, man. It says right on it, Ballot Box 212, Metro-Dade Elections Department in big letters. It’s in this room right next to the front door, it’s just sitting there. It’s locked.”

“I told you!” the nurse shouts.

Geraldine, Gihan and I look at each other. Oh shit.

“Hey, I gotta go,” Tony says. ” They’re taking me on a tour of the place.”

PAGE 2

The race is down to 300 votes. What we do now could save the elections. Gihan starts rehearsing his speech to TV cameras in his head. I’m so shook I can’t think.

Gihan says, “OK Jeff, you go in there and demand to have them open the box. If it’s full of ballots, I’ll just tell them we gotta take it in.”

“Uh”, I say, “I, uh, I can’t make the story if I’m gonna break the story. It would be kinda weird, you know, sorta journalistically ethically, uh, if I were to be the one to be going in and getting the box.”

“OK”, Gihan says. Damn, Gihan is thinking.

He decides he’ll go in and say he’s there to collect the ballot box. If they don’t give it up, then we’ll call the TV stations and the NAACP. If they try to hide the box, he says, he’ll just go in there and jump on the box.

Tony runs back to the car. “Yo, they were playing bingo in there”, he says breathlessly. “They were about to get me in a game.”

We tell him our plan. Tony looks grim. “Be careful in there,” he says.

We all swagger into the Grand Court nursing home.

At the front desk, Gihan steps to the counter. And there it is: the ballot box, in the storage room to the left. A large shiny steel thing with a big padlock on a rusty chain. Ballot Box 212.

Gihan says, “We’re checking to see if all the polling places have turned in their boxes. So I’m here to pick up the ballot box. ”

The front desk administrator, an Afro-Caribbean woman, looks at him. “Can I see some I.D.?”

Gihan reaches into his back pocket like he’s gonna pull something out. Then he asks, “Is there stuff in that box? Because, you know, we’re just checking because we’ve heard reports that there are ballot boxes still out here.”

The administrator says, “Oh yeah, there’s something in it. It’s pretty heavy.”

We’re all staring at the big shiny box. The Metro-Dade Elections Department sticker. Gihan asks, “Can you open it up? We just want to check if there are ballots in there, because, you know, this election is so close.”

“Well, I can’t open it up. I don’t have the key,” she says. We’re all staring at the big padlock. The rusty chain.

The administrator points to the box. “They are totally separate from us. I mean, someone called yesterday to ask about it and said they would come pick it up. But they haven’t shown up yet,” she says. “So do you have I.D.?”

Gihan says, “Well, no. We’re just going around to see about these boxes. You know the election is down to 300 votes.”

It’s the administrator’s turn to be surprised. “Really? We were all looking at it thinking the same thing, like what’s in there. We were all worried about it, too. But I can’t just give it to you.”

Gihan says, “OK.” The administrator offers a business card and says we should just come back with some I.D. Gihan’s head is spinning as we walk out. “Call the television stations,” he says.

No one is picking up the Board of Elections line. All the black church leaders are meeting with Jesse Jackson. The NAACP number doesn’t work. Tony calls Channel 10, “Yo! I got a breaking story for you.”

I’m ringing the Democrat’s new Voter Fraud Line in West Palm Beach. Someone gets on the line immediately. I explain the story, then they take the address and promise to call me back.

Tony walks back, shaking his head. “The guy at Channel 10 said he’s been getting calls like this every 10 minutes. The boxes are full of pencils and extra ballots. “He goes, ‘Chill out, dude.’”

Someone else will have to save democracy tonight.

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