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Note: This essay garnered tremendous backlash, particularly from my former colleagues at the Sun-Sentinel. I do regret that some took it as an attempt to take full credit for the excellent team effort by my newsroom that night. I had been asked to describe what it was like to be on the story the night it was breaking, and some words chosen in this piece were poor. Nonetheless, it is archived here because it is part of my record and served as a meaningful learning experience to me.

Dec. 12, 2000

BREAKING THE BUTTERFLY BALLOT STORY
A Firsthand Account Of Palm Beach
County On Election Night

By Steve Friess

It was to be that most mundane of Election Night assignments, cranking out a piece on voter turnout. It was my final week of work at the paper. The job fell to me because it was supposed to be easy - easy enough to give me lots of time later in the evening to crunch precinct vote totals and provide our other reporters with instant analysis.

Except this was Palm Beach County on Election Night 2000.

It would be at least a day before the term "butterfly ballot" would enter our lexicon, a week or more before "chad" would hit the late-night joke circuit. But by the time the sun rose on the first winnerless post-election Wednesday in modern U.S. history, I knew my byline was gracing one of the stories of the year.

From there, the matter morphed into a worldwide sensation and turned the senior citizens of Palm Beach County into targets of unceasing national ridicule. On Election Day, though, it was a 25- year-old accountant from Delray Beach who called me first. The ballot was confusing, she griped on my voice-mail at 8 a.m. Gore was the second name, but the third hole? And those pegs just didn't line up right, y'know?

Dozens would call after her with near-identical testimony, insisting they walked out of their polling places confiding in spouses or friends about their difficulty. Even fellow reporters arrived at work in a daze, scratching their heads about what they saw in the booth. Sure, most of the callers were elderly and/or Jewish voters, but perhaps they were just more horrified than others that they may have cast a valuable vote for a man, Pat Buchanan, who they believe to be an anti-Semite. And when the votes were counted, lo and behold, several Democratic stronghold precincts had indeed handed an inexplicable and disproportionate number of votes to the Reform candidate.

I wrote at least three versions of the story that night. At first, it seemed the Buchanan problem was destined to be irrelevant, nothing more than an odd local sidelight. Finally, somewhere in the middle of the night, when the networks took Florida away from Bush and Gore pulled within a hair's breadth, the questionable fate of a few thousand miscast votes became a crucial matter. I wrote the piece to reflect the prospect that the problem could throw the entire election, but the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's editors were slow to see how big this would be: My Wednesday story appeared only in our Palm Beach County edition and not in the Broward editions that many times more readers receive. And, even in the Palm Beach edition, it was only the Page 1B lead, not a Page One story.

By that morning, though, thanks mostly to our Internet edition, media outlets across the nation recognized the Sun- Sentinel's newsbreaking efforts. My voice-mail box filled every 15 minutes all morning, mostly with messages from upset voters, but also with requests from talk-radio hosts around the world wanting me to explain the controversy. I accepted a few of these offers, but far from whetting my appetite for more involvement in the story, my moments as a multimedia whore showed me what was ahead for this story and for the public image of my county.

To me, it seemed perfectly reasonable that these people were confused by their ballots, that it was an incontestable fact that if Gore lost, he was robbed by that ballot. As I did those interviews, though, I heard the incredulous attitudes of these out-of-town hosts turning a serious and understandable complaint into a cartoon, a stereotype. These out-of-town gasbags were already alleging Democratic conspiracies to delegitimize George W. Bush and mocking our local voters as addled morons. All sorts of people who weren't there, who couldn't possibly know, were molding the truth to fit their ideologies.

Four days later, I left the Sun-Sentinel and the mayhem of an unfolding media circus. I would depart that weekend on a cross- country trip to visit friends and family before a move to Beijing in late December to spend a year as a China Daily copy editor. No matter how many times that week my colleagues insisted I should be bummed to walk away from the epicenter of a story like this, the timing seemed as much a blessing as a curse.

Indeed, after the first few days, the whole thing started to get stupid. Local politicians and sources became so full of themselves and so swept up in the fervor that they slighted local reporters and opted instead for the spotlight of The New York Times. Editors dug in, seeking sidebars and stories on every inane detail of the mess, no matter how irrelevant or insipid it might be. No, I'm satisfied to have been in the extraordinary position of breaking a significant story - and then getting out before the journalism stopped and the showbiz started.

###

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