In a democracy, every vote counts except in the Sunshine State. Focusing on recounts, voter purges, odd irregularities and perplexing ballots, the documentary Trouble in Paradise explores Florida's dubious reputation for getting elections wrong.
Directed by Laurel Greenberg, Paradise is a tale of two elections. Sandwiched between the 2000 presidential and the 2002 gubernatorial race, the film largely centers on a cast of characters who say democracy failed them, and on their motivation to prevent it from happening again.
Paradise begins with what seems like a tourist video brochure for 1950s Florida. A catchy tropical beat plays over an inviting montage of waterskiing beauties in bathing caps, barrel-chested gator wrestlers and perfect little families baking in the heat. But the invitation to sun and fun quickly switches to Election Day 2000 and the 36 bleak days following. The White House will go to whoever gets the state's electoral votes, and there are a lot of pissed-off protesters taking to the streets.
We all know which candidate came out on top, but Greenberg reports that Dubya's win by a margin of 537 votes over Gore came at a price of nearly 180,000 discounted ballots and the disenfranchisement of one in eight of the state's African-Americans.
Who's to blame? Former Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Harris was in charge of the electoral process in the state, but was also the co-chair of Bush's Florida campaign. As if this wasn't enough fodder for a conflict-of-interest charge, Greenberg also crucifies Harris and Governor Jeb for enforcing an 1885 law that prevents ex-cons from voting a law that was enacted following the Civil War to oppress former slaves. Further, the film contends that Harris and the governor's administration used a faulty list that incorrectly labeled thousands of legitimate voters as felons, causing them to be purged from voting rosters.
Instead of enlisting media experts and talking heads, Paradise takes as its main characters Florida citizens who witnessed firsthand the election get botched. Among them are poll workers, an aspiring politician and a radical activist, all of whom passionately vow to prevent a repeat of the fiasco in the 2002 governor's race.
While it seems like an interesting setup for the rest of the film, Paradise merely follows these folks around as they canvass neighborhoods, stump for votes and register new voters. Despite the buildup, things go haywire in the Democratic primaries, and Jeb Bush the man the film says handed Florida over to his brother is re-elected as governor.
The personal stories are interesting but not engaging enough for all the time they receive on the screen. The story of ex-felon and preacher Thomas Johnson, who sued the state to restore his voting rights, is the only anecdotal treatment that doesn't serve as a distraction from more compelling reportage.
Otherwise, Paradise fails to deliver any substantive payout and feels flat. There's no doubt the subject matter is meaty, but the film never approaches the urgency and effective attention to detail achieved in similar poli-doc Unprecedented. Trouble in Paradise should have been an on-target call for election reform. Instead, it comes off as just a weak vote for change.