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
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
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
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