Carl Hiaasen

Florida notebook

Post-election blues in the Sunshine State

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It’s a mild and tranquil December here in Florida, the headlines flickering with routine weirdness and depravity. Four years ago at this time, we were roiling in the acid-bath aftermath of a presidential contest that required 36 ridiculous days to resolve, and only then by a brazenly partisan vote of the United States Supreme Court. Our state was the infamous ground zero of that fiasco, and ever since then we Floridians looked forward to 2004 much as one would to an amateur colonoscopy.

On election day I fled far into Everglades National Park to contemplate my options. Like many, I anticipated a sordid replay of the 2000 stalemate. However I emerged to learn that the Sunshine State fell early and without drama to George W. Bush. The deciding controversy, brief as it was, would unfold in a couple of counties in Ohio. Florida was finally off the hook! Whatever lunacy comes out of Washington DC during the next four years, nobody can blame us. This time Bush seems to have been chosen by an actual mathematical majority of American voters, not just by friendly judges and a handful of Republican hacks in Tallahassee.

Predictably, the Internet is pulsing with conspiracy theories about how the presidency was stolen, again, in Florida. One scenario has Bush supporters hacking into the new touch-screen voting machines and preprogramming them in advance of the election. Fuelling the rumour was this titbit: the chief of Diebold, a company that manufactures the machines, was a major campaign donor to the Republicans. Unfortunately for the conspiracists, the urban Florida counties that used the touch-screen devices produced vote tallies that were fairly consistent with the opinion polls and with prior voting patterns. Still another theory of chicanery focuses on rural counties in northern Florida that, despite a predominance of registered Democrats, voted heavily Republican. This is no mystery to anyone who’s ever travelled through places like Dixie County. It is the Old South, and Old South Democrats are not the same breed, or possibly even the same species, as Massachusetts Democrats. I am willing to bet that John Kerry’s core campaign message, whatever it was, did not resonate in Steinhatchee, Florida.

Partly in reaction to on-line conspiracy bloggers, the Miami Herald dispatched reporters to examine the November voting results in three disputed counties — Lafayette, Union and Suwanee — where machines called optical scanners were used to read paper ballots. Few discrepancies were found; Bush was clearly the overwhelming choice of voters there, including Democrats. I would have been astonished to learn otherwise. But dreams do die hard. Only last week I received an earnest letter from a reader imploring me to investigate the vote-counting shenanigans in northern Florida, with an eye towards exposing the presidential election for the fraud it was. It would be fun to try, if only there were evidence. Some experts on voting-machine technology have stated that an election could be rigged by corrupting the central computers that compile and add the precinct results. Obviously a local political contest would be easier to sabotage than a national election, which would require the hijacking of hundreds of computer programs in multiple states.

After what happened in 2000, I’m hesitant to rule out any scenario as impossible. Nonetheless, I would be surprised — and, frankly, impressed — if it turns out that Bush operatives in Florida managed to steal 380,978 votes, which was the President’s margin of victory here last month. Four years ago he ‘won’ the state by only 537 votes, and that was a sloppy chore. However, it was enough to put him in the White House and make Florida a punch-line for snarky TV comedians ever since.

The mainstream media have laid this season’s election to rest, leaving us to look elsewhere for amusement. A newspaper colleague of mine, Jim DeFede, has just completed a cross-country journey with a grilled-cheese sandwich, upon which the visage of the Virgin Mary is said to be emblazoned. The sandwich had been lovingly preserved by a Florida woman for ten years in her freezer. Recently she sold it on eBay for $28,000 to an on-line gambling outfit in Las Vegas. My fellow columnist Jim, who had generously offered his services as both chauffeur and security guard, transported the sandwich by automobile to its new home in Nevada. There it will be prominently displayed in a manner befitting such a relic, somewhere between the virtual slot machines and the virtual crap tables.

Photographs of the cheese sandwich reveal an image that might be imagined as that of a young woman, although to my eye it resembles not the Virgin Mary so much as a young, post-Oz Judy Garland. In any case, Jim — in search of insight — designed a travel route through ‘Red’ states that had gone solidly Republican in the election. Not surprisingly, many folks he encountered along the way were happy to believe that the mother of Jesus Christ would choose to manifest herself as a grilled lunch entrée. While it’s easy to generalise about regional politics and faiths, I must point out that the woman who made the holy sandwich and guarded it for a decade lives in a ‘Blue’ county, Broward, which voted heavily for John Kerry.

If the most anxiously awaited event in Florida was the official end to the corrosive and nerve-racking presidential campaign, the second most anxiously awaited event was the official end to our long and destructive hurricane season on 1 December. This year the state got smacked by four substantial storms, which I view as divine retribution for the run-amok greed that has transformed our coastlines into a domino-style condominium hell. Nature has all sorts of ways, some more subtle than others, to remind the human race of its foolish incursions. For a few recent days, local television news featured a rare North American crocodile that had occupied a freshwater lake on the University of Miami campus. Students were of mixed opinion as to whether or not the hefty reptile should be removed, since it hadn’t eaten anybody. Normally I’d cast my vote for leaving the croc alone, but in this case the animal seemed destined for a late-night showdown with some drunken frat-house nitwit. For that reason, I wasn’t dismayed when trappers with grappling hooks arrived to haul the crocodile out of the lake and truck it deep into the Everglades. Believe me, there are worse places to be.

Carl Hiaasen is the author of ten novels, as well as Hoot, a Newbery Award-winning book for young readers. He has been a columnist for the Miami Herald since 1985. His most recent novel, Skinny Dip, was published by the Bantam Press in October.