Election 2004  
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Permanent Evolution

Florida's electoral landscape is a shape-shifter. Trying to get a bead on it is like being the lead character in 'Memento.' Whatever you knew a minute ago, just forget it. Something else is happening now. And now. And now.
 
 
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On Drew Curtis' FARK.com the links to all the important and bizarre stories you'll need for your news diet are divided into categories, including "weird," "interesting," "unlikely," "asinine," "cool," and "Florida."

That's just how extreme we are. We have transcended geography and become an state of being. For perspective, the only other proper noun to earn a FARK category is "Walken."

Actually, we in Florida are not so vastly different from other states. We totally blew a world-changing presidential election in 2000, but that could have happened to anyone with butterfly ballots, hanging chads and a felon list as notorious as the FBI's Most Wanted. Florida also has concentrations of every single heavily-courted voting bloc in the country; the young vote, the old vote, the Hispanic vote, including Puerto Rican, Cuban and Mexican votes. And don't forget the African American, Jewish, Arab, Christian, suburban, gay and the-list-goes-on votes. We also have pre-election lawsuits, paperless electronic voting machines and population increase of 1.5 million since 2000.

Florida is a shape-shifter. Trying to get a bead on it is like being the lead character in Memento. Whatever you knew a minute ago, just forget it. Something else is happening now. And now. And now.

Florida put Republican Jeb Bush in the governor's mansion twice in since 1998, but go back a few decades and most of our governors have been Democrats. Bill Nelson and Bob Graham, both Democrats, occupy our Senate seats, but we put more Republicans in the U.S. House than Democrats this legislative session.

We wanted Poppy Bush for President in 1992, but were happy to give Bill Clinton a return engagement in 1996. We liked Ike and Nixon, and also Truman and Roosevelt. It's a fairly healthy tug of war.

So while the state teeters, one thing that remains solid is the conceded importance of the Interstate 4 Corridor, the swath of land that hangs like a pageant contestant's sash from the shoulder of the state to its hip. I-4 runs from Daytona, where NASCAR thrives, down to Tampa Bay.

What Will the Center Hold?

Right in the center of it all is Orlando, where Mickey, Goofy and I live. "Central Florida is conservative by it's very nature," says Bill Orben, editor of the Osceola News-Gazette, which reported 10,000 newly registered voters as of Oct. 8, mostly Democrats. "It's so close, one small splinter group could tilt it one way or the other."

Orlando's Orange County has a decidedly conservative vibe to it, as does neighboring Osceola County. Orlando elected Democrat Buddy Dyer in the last mayoral election, but before that it picked Republican Glenda Hood, who was later appointed by Jeb Bush to be secretary of state. Hood and Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Thereasa LePore were recently the targets of a lawsuit over the lack of a paper trail in Florida's new touch screen voting machines. The suit was dismissed by a state appeals court. A federal judged also recently ruled that a paper trail was unneccessary.

Both Orange and neighboring Osceola went for Al Gore in 2000 by a total of roughly 8,000 votes, while neighboring Seminole County went for Bush by about twice that number. More Democrats may be registered here now, but according to an analysis by St. Petersburg Times political editor Adam Smith, the non-Cuban Hispanic vote (Orlando's biggest demographic increase in recent years) "partly explains why Orange County went Democratic in 2000 for the first time since World War II."

Other political pros point to different voting groups as crucial. "If women and minorities turn out the vote we will win solidly. If they don't, we won't," says Doug Head, chairman of the Orange County Democrats. Head predicts that Kerry will take Orange County by 15,000 votes this time, the increase largely being attributable to "new registrants to the state who are more progressive." Speaking of progressive, Karen Lopez, co-state organizer of the League of Pissed Off Voters in Florida says that her group has encountered in Orlando mostly "the hip hop, Latino club-going kids," In Tampa, however, Lopez says there's a "really strong crew of punk voters." But despite the optimism that these good numbers offer, everybody knows that nothing is sure.

That includes Deanie Lowe, who says that "it depends on how close it is as to how any particular county could swing the vote." Lowe, a Republican, is the supervisor of elections in Volusia County (which includes Daytona) and was the target of a lawsuit this month by the NAACP which claimed that the one early voting office opened for the entire county was in a location very difficult for minorities to access, and therefore was an act of disenfranchisement. Three more polling places have since opened in Volusia after the NAACP filed suit, and turnout has been successful.

The twisting and turning extends to Tampa Bay, which Adam Smith, political editor of the St. Petersburg Times, describes as "totally a swing area." Smith said in a phone interview that "whoever wins Tampa Bay wins the election. [The area has] 26% of the electorate and has the largest concentration of swing voters." Smith says that "Hillsborough County, where Tampa is, used to be a Democratic area but the suburbs have been increasingly Republican. Pinellas County is Republican, but it's a moderate, midwestern Republican area that has been increasingly leaning Democratic in statewide races." Gore took Pinellas County in 2000, but Bush took Hillsborough: call it a stalemate or a draw, the outcome is up in the air.

Around the Panhandle

While the rest of Florida swings around out there in the ocean, it's anchored to the deep South by the Panhandle. The farthest west county, Escambia, is one of the state's oldest and Adam Smith reports that Jerry Falwell has called it "the most conservative county in America." It's been suggested that when the networks called Florida for Gore early in 2000, a lot of western Panhandle voters (in Central Time) may have stayed home, costing Bush a lot of votes, since that region is mostly Republican.

On the eastern side of the Panhandle, 27,000 ballots were thrown out in 2000, mostly in black neighborhoods in Duval County, according to the New York Times. This trend shows no sign of stopping. Duval County has recently come under fire for having only one early voting site for one of the state's most populous areas – nearly 750,000 people. Duval went in the Bush column in 2000.

On Oct. 18, Duval County's supervisor of elections, Jim Stafford, resigned citing health reasons. The day afford Stafford's resignation, his successor, William E. Scheu, designated four new sites. So, at least there's some fairness there. But who's to say what's coming when most of the voters show up on Nov. 2?

Florida Spins

Dizzy yet? I am. Normally I'd recommend a trek to Miami for anyone's rejuvenation, but it's going to be a nightmare on election day. South Florida is the area where the 2000 election went and slid down the rabbit hole. Miami Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler, who has been with the paper for 31 years, says "Miami is a swing county. It really does tend to go with the winner, and part of that is that it's so big. It went with Al Gore last time and when I say it went with the winner, I mean most people in Florida intended to vote for Al Gore in 2000 but because of ballot problems butterfly ballots and tens of thousands of African American votes that were thrown out across the state, the result was sufficient to give it to George Bush."

West of Miami is the Gulf Coast, most counties of which – including Collier, Hendry, Lee, Charlotte, Glades, Sarasota, Manatee, Desoto – went into the Bush column last time. Miami can go either way, Fiedler says, but it usually leans to the opposite side of its Gulf Coast neighbors and goes Democrat. It has a Cuban American Democratic Mayor, which is "unusual," Fiedler says. Slate magazine reported that the Cuban vote went for Bush in the last election in a big way, with more than 80% of the vote. When I asked Fielder if the Cuban trend was changing, Fiedler said "not yet," but that those "who are newly registered arrived more recently may be more likely to vote Democrat, and the reason is there's quite a strong reaction against the Bush policy to limit the amount of family visits that Cubans can have between Cubans here and Cubans on the island and limit the amount of money [that can be sent to families in Cuba]. [This] truly angered a lot of Cuban Americans [who] are unable to help ailing parents or relatives." So many conditionals, future scenarios – and that is just one voting bloc of many in the Miami area.

It's a lot to think about. Plus we're likely to have a barrage of poll watchers and media that could make 2000 look like a day at the rest home. "What we're going to see this time is simply more flaws revealed because there will be more eyes looking for them," says Jeff Truesdel, former editor of the Orlando Weekly. "We're looking at a full-on circus atmosphere."

Well, as Hunter Thompson said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." And we're old pros at this particular weirdness.

Liz Langley is a freelance writer who lives in Florida.