"One minute I feel like Erin Brockovich, the next I feel like the Keystone Kops."
Susan Pynchon is standing in the parking lot of the Lake Mary Kinko's, peering over the mess of files and cardboard boxes in the back of her tan Toyota SUV, which features an anti-Bush sticker on the window. For those still clinging to the belief that the election was rigged, Pynchon a former volunteer for the county's Democratic Party and founder of the newly formed Florida Fair Elections Coalition is your point woman. On Nov. 23, she sued to overturn election results in Volusia County. A few days later she was in a DeLand courtroom fighting the county's motion to dismiss her suit.
According to Pynchon's suit, 59 of Volusia's precincts nearly one-third of them are missing the printouts that the optical-scan voting machines produce to ensure accuracy. All those precincts, Pynchon says, are missing either the results tape, the "zero tape" at the beginning of Election Day, poll workers print a tape that should register all candidates at zero votes to make sure no one got a head start or the required poll workers' signatures on one of the above forms. Volusia County election officials deny that the records are missing.
And then there's the e-mail from Diebold Election Systems to a Volusia County analyst that Black Box Voting founder Bev Harris says she found in the trash outside the Volusia County Supervisor of Elections warehouse. The e-mail states that Volusia had more trouble with its memory cards which record the vote numbers as the ballots are fed into the machines than the rest of Florida combined, with at least 25 memory card failures. (Black Box, a Seattle-based anti-electronic voting organization, is seeking Volusia's records along with Pynchon.)
Combined, the two flaws equal the possibility of cheating, in Pynchon's assessment. "If those cards didn't really fail, if you don't have those original `poll` tapes, they could do whatever the heck they wanted. I'm not saying they did that. But that's the problem, you just don't know. To accept all these screw-ups is to say, 'OK, we just trust you.' That is what I can't do. I'm not accusing anyone of fraud at this point. I would accuse them of lying."
The antipathy started as part of Black Box Voting's massive public-information request, filed in all 67 Florida counties Nov. 2, asking for all documents related to voting machines. In essence, Harris says, her group wanted to audit the Florida vote. On Nov. 15, she popped into the Volusia County office to pick up the records she requested. She wasn't given the records she wanted, and when she complained was told to show up the next morning at the supervisor of elections' warehouse to review documents.
When Harris arrived on what she calls "the most bizarre day of our lives," she says she was ordered out of a room in which she saw three elections employees handling records she wanted, including the poll tapes.
"There was a black garbage bag outside the door," Harris says. Inside, she says she saw some of the poll tapes she'd requested, along with blank ballots and sample ballots. After tussling with an elections employee who ordered her to stop looking through the trash, Harris wrote out an impromptu public-records request for the contents of the trash. Eventually, she was allowed to go back to the elections office and review the documents.
While at the office on the same day, Pynchon who was there seeking another group of records saw an employee hauling a second box out to the trash behind the building, and she went and got it. Harris says the box Pynchon grabbed was a gold mine. "A number of items on the list `of requested records` were in the garbage," Harris says. "Some did not match `the official documents that were` sent to the state … . We're looking at it as a full-scale fraud investigation."
(Harris says all this was caught on video by filmmakers from Votergate.tv who were following her, but that tape is currently in Los Angeles being duplicated and edited, so Orlando Weekly could not review it.)
Next, Harris says, she will be selecting 50 precincts to do hand recounts not that they would change anything. On Friday, a judge threw out Pynchon's lawsuit because it was filed 11 days after the vote count was certified in Volusia, John Kerry officially took 115,519 votes to George Bush's 111,924 a day later than state law permits. The judge did, however, allow her 10 days to refile her complaint. But even if Pynchon had won, and no matter what Harris' recount shows, the presidential election won't be overturned.
But it is the second presidential election in as many tries to feature a Volusia County foul-up. In 2000, a glitch blamed on a faulty Diebold memory card caused Volusia County to briefly erase 16,000 votes from Al Gore, which led television networks to prematurely call the race for Bush. And it is just the latest epicenter of the post-2004 conspiracy theories, which include allegations that Ohio miscounted votes and that some Florida counties that didn't have paper trails ended up with returns more favorable to Bush than exit polls indicated, while counties with paper trails matched up to those exit polls that predicted a Kerry landslide. But the Miami Herald did an audit of three so-called Dixiecrat counties, where registered Democrats voted for Bush. Its examination supported the official results in those counties.
In fact, though the allegations raise eyebrows, none have been substantiated. Which raises the question: Are Harris and Pynchon crazy? "I didn't say it, but you couldn't have said it any better," says outgoing Volusia County supervisor of elections Deanie Lowe. "I think their fears are unfounded."
No records that the county needed were dumped, Lowe says, and her detractors are twisting the facts to suit a conspiracy theory, including saying they found real ballots in the trash when what they really found were probably demonstration ballots. And, she says, they never asked for the zero tapes. "They take stuff and try to twist it to make it sound terrible."
Harris says she's just trying to find out what really happened.
"There are some earmarks that are specific to a specific type of fraud," Harris says.
While she won't go into much detail on what she thinks happened, she says it happened at the county level. She says that because many of the precincts she thinks are missing records are composed mostly of minority or elderly voters, the discrepancies would tend to favor Bush. Both Pynchon and Harris say that their ultimate goal isn't to overturn the election, but to make sure the count is accurate. And if what happened in Volusia isn't fraud, then Harris says the problems in Volusia County still amount to "an incredibly stupid blunder."
Either way, Pynchon says, the investigations will continue. Black Box recently sued Palm Beach County over what Harris describes as its efforts to stymie her records request, and says she may file suit in 14 other counties. "It's gonna take years to figure this out," Pynchon says.
Ultimately, Lowe herself made figuring it out easier. She rejected touch-screen voting machines in favor of the optical-scan ballots, which produce a paper trail. That means the hand recount Harris seeks is possible.