Jack-Loafered Thugs?

Observers of the Miami-Dade hand recount tell their stories.


As more ballots are trucked up to Leon County, Florida, Republican foot soldiers are making the rounds in Washington, DC, telling their side of what happened down in Miami-Dade County. That's where election officials decided not to complete a hand count of their ballots while boisterous Republicans protested the way the count was proceeding.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) accused the button-down protesters of fascism. His House colleague Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said the demonstrations "shook the foundations of democracy." Others have accused the protesters of civil rights violations, charges Janet Reno's Justice Department is reportedly exploring.

Al Gore's contest of the Florida election (which is currently before the Florida Supreme Court) cites various press reports that the protesters intimidated county officials into suspending the hand count. Elections Supervisor David Leahy has denied this.

But Republican observers stationed in the Miami-Dade County recount room claim that they were actually the victims, not the perpetrators, of heavy-handed treatment. They say they were observers who weren't allowed to observe, that they weren't allowed to challenge ballots, and, at times, that they weren't allowed to speak at all. If they complained too often, they were kicked out of the room.

I caught up with two of the Miami-Dade veterans in Washington on Wednesday. Bryan Wilkes, a 33-year-old Hill staffer, took vacation time and left on the morning of his wife's birthday to watch the counting. "She said we don't have any money to give, but if you can do anything to prevent Al Gore from being president, that's a great birthday present," says Wilkes. "You have to love a wife like that." He observed the counting in both Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, but he returned home before the Miami protest got underway.

My second interviewee is heralded by Republican partisans as a "19th Floor Patriot." (The protests occurred on the 19th floor of the Miami-Dade County building.) He only granted the interview on assurances of anonymity, after being warned of Reno's civil rights investigation. He's hoarse from telling his story around D.C., where he's exhorting other Republicans to stand up and fight for George W. Bush. While his time in Florida cost him his voice, at least temporarily, he didn't come back empty-handed. He's wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with "Florida W Recount Team" and carries in the pocket of his blue blazer, along with a piece of hard candy and a stick of gum, a small plastic bag containing three of those now notorious chads.

Here's what they have to say about the events surrounding the Miami-Dade recount.

Bryan Wilkes, congressional staffer

How was the room set up?

There were three members of the canvassing board sitting up front and there were 25 tables. They didn't always have enough county workers to work the tables so there were about 15 in use. One precinct was counted at each table. There were two county workers. There was a Democrat observer and a Republican observer. I was a Republican observer.

What did an observer do?

Our job was to observe the counting, to make sure it was done accurately, to make sure the ballot got put in the right pile, to make sure the numbers on election night matched up with the physical numbers we actually had, and to challenge any ballots that were double punched, that looked bad, or that were illegal under Florida law. In Miami-Dade they made it very difficult for us to challenge.

Was there an actual discrepancy in the number of ballots?

At the end of the count for one precinct one night, I realized that we were 18 votes short on the physical count of the total on election night. Election night was 628 and I had 610, which is a difference of 18. With the information that I had, I determined there were probably 18 undervotes. So the end of the night came and they were putting everything in the box and they wanted us to sign the sheets. Both county workers signed, the Democrat signed, and I said I wasn't going to sign because we were missing 18 votes. It got a little loud, brought some people over, and one of the members of the canvassing board came over. He happens to be the supervisor of elections, David Leahy, I think. I explained the situation, told him we're missing 18 votes, and asked if this a concern, thinking he would say yes and I could take it from there. He said, No, just make a note on the sheet and sign it. I said, "Excuse me?"

These people didn't like to be second-guessed. They didn't like to have their authority challenged. They were total authority freaks, especially the chairman, Judge Lawrence King. Leahy got really irritated and said, "Yes, I said, just make a note on the sheet and sign it."

I said, "So you mean to tell me that you aren't concerned with 18 missing ballots from election night." He began to yell. "If there's one thing I hate, it's when people put words in my mouth."

I yelled back: "Sir, I'm not putting words in your mouth. I asked you a question. And you obviously didn't listen because you didn't answer it. I have all night. Let's find these ballots. Where could they be?"

Somebody said, maybe they're upstairs. I said, "Great, let's go get them." The only thing that saved me from getting kicked out was that there were reporters in the room who took notice at the loud exchange and started to walk down. I'm 100 percent sure sheriff's deputies would have thrown me out of the room if the media wasn't there and it wasn't about missing votes.

They eventually found them. The board voted on them and gave one to Gore and 17 no votes. I was completely shocked and alarmed that the supervisor of elections would say, "Make a note on the form. We have 18 missing ballots and we'll deal with it later. Let's go home."

What was the mood like in the room?

Well it's a very tedious job to sit there and watch these things. The chairman was Judge Lawrence King. We began to call him King Lawrence. You felt like you were back in high school with one of the vice principals who told you not to talk and what to do. They were using a lot of tactics to try to intimidate us, which then quickly made us Republican observers stick together, a brother-in-arms type of thing.

It sounds like officials made it difficult to challenge ballots.

They changed the rules as they went along. In Broward County, the election workers showed the ballot to the observers, the Democrat and Republican. You could go at their pace. If you wanted to challenge it, you raised your hand and it would get sent up to their three-member canvassing board to get voted on. In Miami-Dade, the chairman, County Judge Lawrence King, a Democrat, instituted a set of rules. They were not to show us the ballots. They were to show them just to one another. They could go at their own pace and they didn't have to listen to us. They didn't hold it in front of our face as they did in Broward. One county worker would look at it and say this is a four; the other would look at it and say I agree; and then they would put it in a pile. The only way we got to see the ballot was as it was passed from one county worker to another.

Was that sufficient time for you to tell if there were problems?

Sometimes no. Judge King also said we were not allowed to talk, not allowed to do anything except observe; that was our only duty. And if we did anything else—talked, challenged, etc.—he would have the Sheriff Deputy take us out.

Did you ever want to challenge a ballot but were unable to?

Yes. When we wanted to challenge a ballot, we were to raise our hand and a floor supervisor would come over and challenge it for us. On the second day, they got tired of all our challenges. And so Judge King designated a county worker, who we later called Poison Ivy, to walk over and see if our challenge was "valid." So now everything was now filtered through this county worker called Ivy before it even got to the board. And she killed most of the challenges.

What recourse did you have if she killed your challenge?

Nothing. You had to shut up, and if you didn't, you got kicked out.

So if you challenged a ballot and she disagreed it got put in a pile for Gore, and that was it.

Yes. And that's another thing: you had to watch which piles they put the ballots in. We saw Bush ballots being put in Gore piles. So you had to watch very, very carefully a number of things.

What types of things would make you want to challenge a ballot? They say it's obvious. It's either a vote for Gore or a vote for Bush. What's the big deal?

In Florida, you're not allowed to have a marked ballot. Nothing can be on there. Sometimes there was writing on there. Sometimes there was more than one punch. In the cases of a lot of extra punches, the board decided, Judge King said, any odd number does not count. The ballots had one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten, and so fourth. The candidates were listed under the even numbers, four, six, eight ten, and twelve. Bush was four, Gore was eight, Nader was ten, Browne was twelve, and so on. If we saw a six and a seven, you could argue under normal circumstances that could be thrown out because it's more than one hole punched. They made the rule that no, odd numbers don't count, because there were no candidates there. There were a number of things. I had one that looked like someone took a letter opener and did it, not the machine.

What about actual tampering in the counting process, bending ballots, etc.?

Many of us filled out affidavits that county workers were counting ballots like a deck of cards, touching with their thumb and finger the presidential column (which they weren't supposed to do because that could remove the chads), bending the card like a U, dropping them on the floor, really just mishandling these things. And they are very, very delicate. I just read in the newspaper the other day that the owner of the company that makes the chads says they are not meant to be touched by hand, only by machine. We had one observer fill out an affidavit that said he saw one worker fanning herself with a ballot. So it was ludicrous.

What this is about—whether you like Bush or not, it's about stopping the theft of an election. It's a coup in process, so it's a matter of principle.

How's it a theft? They are just counting the ballots.

They are stealing the ballots through all these things I am talking about. But they also separated what they call the undercounts from the other ballots. There were 10,000 with no preference for president. The three-member canvassing board, on which there was no Republicans, were going through and examining those and making a determination: no vote, Gore, or Bush. And for the most part, Gore was picking up in every precinct two to five votes. Those ballots were put in sealed white envelopes, which we called "magic envelopes."

We would be sitting and observing, and someone would walk over and deliver a sealed envelope, on the outside of which was written a series of numbers, let's say 4-0; 6-2; 10 no vote. What that meant was no votes for Bush, two votes for Gore and 10 were indeed undervotes. We were not allowed to open those envelopes, even though we were observers. The county counters weren't allowed to open those envelopes. They were sealed and we had to use the tally on the front, on which this board, on which there were no Republicans, came up with. And we had to take their word.

There were three Democrats on the board?

The chairman was a Democrat, Lawrence King. They said the other two had no party preference.

Did you feel like you were outnumbered at the counting tables?

There were many times we felt it was three to one. Now I have to admit that a couple of times I got great county workers. They were a couple of ladies just trying to do their jobs. Keep in mind that these were all not election workers. Any county worker who wanted to volunteer could help count. At one point, they even pulled guys in from cutting the grass because they didn't have enough, so some didn't want to be there. So they might have given us some attitude back or just wanted to be done with it quickly and they would get upset when we slowed it up by issuing challenges. It was very surreal working in a room with poor lighting, trying to concentrate on this very tedious job, watching one of your fellow observers being berated at the front of the room, all the while trying to figure out if that was a mistake when the county worker put the Bush vote in the Gore pile or if they did it on purpose.

The "19th Floor Patriot"

How did we get to a point where a bunch of people in Oxford shirts were chanting and acting like leftists?

Several day of seeing blatant unfairness by that board on which we had no representation. We had put up with rulings that were all against us from the very beginning when we began counting Monday morning.

Give me some examples.

When we first came in, they said the observers had no right to observe the ballot. We're not talking about general public observers sitting outside the rope line. We are talking about the official observers under the law allowed at the table where the precinct was being counted.

You were not allowed to see the ballots?

We had to use our charm and cajoling to get them to show us the ballots. The board sent around one of its supervisors to reprimand the counters to stop showing us the ballots. They claimed we had no right to see them and that they needed to speed up the pace.

If you weren't supposed to see the ballots, what were you supposed to do?

They were going to allow us to confirm that all of the ballots in a pile had a hole punched for the candidate by holding up the stack of ballots to the light and looking through them to see that all of them had a hole punched through. We made the case that this was unfair, that we'd not be able to see if there were overvotes, or ballots that had holes punched for two different candidates if they were put in the pile. Those ballots with two votes for president are illegal in any state in any jurisdiction anywhere. And we wanted to make sure that there weren't any of these getting put in piles as official votes. We were told we had no right to see that. We were also told that we had no right to see dimple chads, hanging chads, any other things on the ballots. The rule in Florida is that they ballots cannot have any marks on them either. We would make challenges over things, because there were marks on all of them, pencil marks, sometimes ballots had circles drawn on them, they had black marks on the back of the ballot along the presidential line. There were things I'd see that it looked like charcoal was rubbed along the back, and you'd see the darkness, right where the perforations are. There were all kinds of deficiencies with these ballots.

So how did we end up on the 19th floor?

Every day we walked into that room they had set different rules for what could be counted and what we were allowed to challenge and send up to the board for the final decision. The seating arrangement changed every time we went into the room. They tried to rearrange the seating so that the observers had less ability to see the ballot as it was counted. On that Wednesday morning, we had the feeling that with the Florida Supreme Court setting a deadline of Sunday, they were going to try to speed up the count and try to find some new way to jam us and prohibit us from actually ensuring that a fair count was going on. Instead, they decided to dismiss all the counters. They had to overturn their own legal opinion that they had made earlier. Judge King was on record saying earlier that legally they had no right to do any manual recount short of an entire manual recount short of the entire county. They could not do any partial recount under the law. They were now reversing themselves for convenience and saying, "We are just going to count the undervote," the ballots that they had sorted out already as having cast no vote for president. We were outraged that they were changing the rules of the game again. We figured they were going to wipe out all the work that was done at the counting tables for the last two days and go back and just look at what was in these white magic envelopes.

That would have increased Gore's count from 159 to more than 250 votes because they would have disallowed all of the non-Gore votes that we located at the tables. With a wave of their hand, they were giving Al Gore another 100 votes that we absolutely knew were illegitimate. We just thought was outrageously unfair.

So what happened?

At approximately 8:30 AM on Wednesday, the board thanked us for our time, they said we were being very civic minded for coming out and helping them, and they told us to go home. They were going to take the rest of the counting from the big public room on the 18th floor with 30 or 40 television cameras to the private counting room on the 19th floor where no press was going to be allowed. No microphone was going to be allowed in the room, and only one pool camera would be allowed outside the room, behind a glass window, 25 feet away.

Approximately 30 of us are sitting in the hallway and we're thinking this is the David Copperfield way to steal an election. David Copperfield could get in that room and allow the free press to have one camera 25 feet away in one angled position behind a glass window and he could turn a person in that room into a tiger. And they were going to be counting little dimples, and chads, and ballots, there'd be absolutely no way to focus the camera on what the board was seeing. No way for the public to see and challenge what the board was doing. They were going to let the board get away with murder. The more we thought about it as we sat on the 19th floor, the more we realized this was a coup behind closed doors. We felt helpless, we felt frustrated that this was being allowed to happen in our country. They didn't want observers. They wanted to have as few witnesses as possible.

You were let go on the 18th floor and you took the elevator to the 19th floor. Then what happened?

We decided we were going to sit down and chant, just see if we could focus attention on the fact that they were stealing an election behind those doors. From where we were you couldn't see the tally room. You had no way of seeing where they were. We couldn't see any of the canvassing board members, and we couldn't see the ballots. That was as far as we were allowed to go.

It looked pretty raucous at one point. Did you threaten anybody or keep anyone from getting in the room?

Nobody was threatened. Nobody was prevented from getting in the room. Were we loud? Yes. Were we frustrated? Yes. Were we making a lot of noise? Yes. We were trying to get press attention so the world would see what was going on there. We make no bones about it. We are not ashamed of that fact. What we were advocating, what we were chanting was let the press in. We wanted more cameras in there. We wanted this to be public. We wanted a video record of what they were going to do.

So basically they were going to count the undercount votes with no Republican observers present?

My understanding is that they were going to allow two Republican lawyers in the room. But we were getting steamrolled by them. We were having no impact. It was not a court of law; they were not allowing us to make appeals. They were ignoring the law despite our lawyers being there. So all they were doing was trying to reduce the number of witnesses to their crime.

Democrats are on TV all the time saying "All we want is a fair and accurate count." They talk about a hand count being more accurate than an machine count.

There is no fair and accurate count with a hand count. There's chads all over the place, they don't know where the chads came from, they can't tell what holes they came from, they don't even want to stop and count the number of chads that had fallen out.

Did you see chads on the floor yourself?

Yes. [He pulls out a small plastic bag with three chads.] They're very small. If you're 25 feet away do you think you could see those? Could you tell where they are on the ballot, which hole they came out of? We were finding these everywhere, and as observers we were trying to document every time we found one. We'd try to hold up the count, get some one from the press to come over and photograph it, document time and place to figure out where that chad came from. Instead we had election supervisors coming over to our tables and sweeping these things onto the floor and telling us to get on with our count. The one supervisor named Ivy, she wet her finger, used her wet finger to pick up the chad, and then flicked it as us to show her disdain that we would stop the count to worry about a chad.