Florida Palms, Ungreased

Everyone knows you can't buy votes for your favorite candidate, not explicitly anyway, as Matt Damon clearly had in mind when he sighed recently that he'd happily give a million dollars for a Kerry victory. But it's also illegal to buy votes period, even without specifying whom the payee must endorse; Michael Moore now finds himself "a wanted man" in his home state of Michigan, after famously offering young slackers Ramen noodles and a new pair of underwear in exchange for promises they'd pull some lever, any lever, on Nov. 2. ("Voting or agreeing to vote, or inducing or attempting to induce another to vote, at an election" is a felony, under Michigan law 168.931.)

Nevertheless, in a home stretch where frantic Democrats and Republicans alike find themselves wishing more people could be lured to the polls – and knowing, by now, that Rock the Vote-like efforts can't ensure actual voter turnout numbers – would a little grease on some palms be so horrible if it got more of us doing our patriotic duty. And anyway, who's to say what constitutes a bribe in the first place?

"Could I offer you $40 to vote for one candidate or the other?" I asked a young man who said his name was Eric. I asked him at the tail end of a longer conversation, in which he took cell phone calls intermittently, and admitted that he probably wouldn't vote.

"Forty dollars to vote? No way," he said. "What? Hang on, I'll call you back. No way. Forty dollars isn't enough. Also that's bribery."

"What's wrong with bribery?"

"It's illegal."

I should back up and say that I had this conversation, and then a good many more, in Gainesville, Fla., where I was visiting for a few days. Gainesville is a college town, one that John Edwards, Michael Moore and Dick Cheney all found worth visiting recently. This year it will likely be a Democratic town, as it has been in presidential elections since Clinton; Gore won Alachua County by a healthy margin in 2000. Still, some say Bush has found new fans in the student body here, and tension only peaked this week when news of an apparent voter fraud case broke. According to the Associated Press, the county's elections supervisor has turned over 510 suspicious voter registration forms to the State Attorney's office, having learned that the party affiliations seemed to have been changed from Democrat to Republican. A University of Florida student named Mark Jacoby, employed by a contractor that signed up voters for the Republican Party of Florida, is the one who collected the forms.

A visitor here expects to find nothing but fierce partisanship. A visitor can't help but look, because a visitor is obsessed with the Florida mind. And though of course I found plenty of clear Bush or Kerry voters, I was stunned to find a plentiful supply of undecided or unconcerned non-voters – and in a state where I thought such people were now eligible for the death penalty. I, myself, considered killing them, but realized this wouldn't result in them voting. I wondered if there wasn't a happier solution.

Sam Esquith, a grad student in English, and one of few people to give me their full names, was sitting at a Starbucks. I asked him if I could pay him to vote. "People who need to be bribed, those are votes we don't want," he said

I asked an undergrad sitting on a bench the same question.

"I might say no to $40," he said, "but a poor person wouldn't."

I thought this was a pretty good answer, but I pressed on with what I considered geniusy technical questions.

"What if I don't offer $40 for your vote, but $40 for a photo of yourself voting? It's not your vote I'm buying, it's your picture."

Geniusy technical questions annoy non-voting Floridians. The guy squinted at me like I'd just asked him to help me carry my couch up some stairs. "Listen, I gotta run, but good luck." We shook hands, with the clear understanding I'd crossed a line.

But where's the line? Isn't it a kind of bribery when political parties offer voters rides to the polling stations, and then even rides to work from there? And what about when P. Diddy goes on TV and says "Vote or Die"? The ad works not by seriously threatening our lives, but by extending cultural capital to those who do as Diddy does. Does bribery have to involve cash? What if the briber can offer something even more enticing, like cachet? And what about Australians and their mandatory – which is to say coerced – participation in democracy? Are we supposed to think that's even further beyond the pale?

The matter of manipulation and votes has always been a tangle of good intentions but limited logic. We can all agree with the vague idea that a citizen's relationship to the ballot box ought to be as pure as possible; the notion of voters being financially compromised is as un-American as, well, an election decided by the Supreme Court. Presumably we draw the line at putting would-be voters in positions they're powerless to refuse – physical intimidation, cash offers they can't resist, etc. But who legislates powerlessness? If it turned out the Rock the Vote campaign filled impressionable MTV viewers with unbearable pressure, is this manipulation? If invocations for us to do "our patriotic duty" happen to stir us even deeper than a $20 bill, doesn't that mean it's even worse? Then there's the age-old problem with prosecuting bribes in the first place, as illustrated by the joke about the guy being arrested for taking a bribe on election day:

"I voted for my candidate because I like him," the man insists.

"But we have evidence he paid you $50," the FBI agent replies.

"Why do you think I like him?"

Where does manipulation end and free will begin? And what's the difference between bribery and commerce? Is it bribing McDonald's when I give them money in exchange for a hamburger? These aren't new questions, but when I presented them to random Gainesvillians – as casually and unthreateningly as a person learns to broach politics here – you'd think I was questioning our very Constitution.

I met briefly with Beverly Hill, the elections supervisor who'd recently turned the apparently fraudulent forms over to the State Attorney's office. "Why, exactly, is it illegal to offer someone money to go vote?" I asked.

"It just is," Hill said, with a look that suggested she thought my question was meant to be amusing, and that it wasn't. "It's illegal. It's bribery. I don't make the law. I would call the State Attorney [if I saw it happening]."

Outside Hill's building I ran into a woman urging early voters to vote for Kerry. We sympathized with each other briefly about low voter turnout, and then I asked how she'd feel about someone paying people to vote. She actually shuddered, and took a couple steps away from me.

"It's scummy…just scummy."

"But why, exactly?" I asked. "It's okay to make people feel really guilty about not voting, isn't it?"

She was quiet for an uncomfortable amount of time. "I don't know but it just feels immoral."

Finally I called the Florida Division of Elections. The press office took my call promptly, but when the woman on the other end heard the question, she, too, sounded irritated, and said someone would have to call me back. I haven't been called back yet, but when I asked the same questions to someone not from the press office, this person answered in the same peeved tautology: "It's wrong to bribe someone because it's illegal under state law."

It's possible, in Florida, to never stop asking questions; for the outsider in such a strange place at such an important moment, it's a nearly irresistible impulse. But it's possible, also, to accept that such places at such times aren't interested in pulling up the floorboards and inspecting the foundation – that they're just concentrating on keeping the roof on for the next two weeks.

Anyway, I did eventually find a person who wasn't put off by the topic at all. In fact, she seemed downright open to the idea. Tiffany Owen is a bartender at Hooters, which, in a Floridian way, is part of the same building that houses the Starbucks I visited earlier. She took a break from filling pitchers and gave it a few moments' thought. "Bribery? I don't see what's wrong with it," she said. "Yeah, it's paying people to vote, but where's the problem? No one votes!"

And I didn't even pay her to say it.

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