How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Chad

My big adventure inside the counting room

It started as morbid curiosity, like rubbernecking a car crash. The Broward County Emergency Operations Center (EOC), where the manual recount for the presidential election was going on, is just two miles from my house, and I kept seeing the place all over the national news. So, on November 18 I decided to take a look.

When I arrived I walked past the press tents, live-television trucks, and uniformed Broward Sheriff's Office deputies into the building, where all I had to do was sign in to gain entry. I found the counting room on the second floor, but before I could catch a glimpse, a busy-looking guy came up to me and asked, "Are you Democrat?"

Yes, I told him.

"Are you here as an observer?" he asked.

"Sure," I answered.

"Have you been trained?" he asked.

"Uh, no."

"Okay, we need to get you up to the third floor for training," he said.

I didn't have the day to kill, so I told him no thanks and left. But I had seen my chance to get up close and personal with chads, those little paper buggers that could determine the leadership of the free world. It might make for a good news story, especially if I witnessed some chicanery by either party.

Republicans seemed certain that some mischief was afoot in there. On television that Saturday morning, they held up little plastic bags full of chads, reminiscent of President George H. W. Bush holding up bags of crack cocaine bought near the White House in 1989. (It turned out federal agents had set up the drug buy for the photo op.) The chad-shaking Republicans seemed so righteously indignant, you'd have thought it was a stained blue dress in their hands. Evidence, they called the chads. One of Bush's new spokesmen, Gov. Marc Racicot of Montana, remarked with outrage that if the American people could sit inside one of those evil counting rooms, they would wonder "what in the name of God is going on." On top of that, there was a complaint that some crazed Democrat had gone off and eaten a chad. (The humanity!) Apparently these Democratic operatives weren't just mischievous, they also were really hungry.

It seemed the Republicans were protesting too much, but the process, as they described it, did sound absurd. Pregnant chads were going to determine the presidency? This I had to see.

So on Monday, November 20, I went back to the EOC, where the Democrats on the third floor gave me a phone number in Hollywood to call. I dialed it, was given a Federal Highway address, and drove over. In a little strip-mall office, a guy named Adam sat me down and gave me the skinny on the recount process (telling me nothing about chads I hadn't already heard a dozen times). At the bottom of an information sheet, in bold letters, was the instruction: "DO NOT TALK TO THE PRESS." Little did they know. Behind him was a poster board that warned in Magic Marker: "Don't let any votes for Al get away!"

"You will be an advocate for Al Gore," Adam said, and then scheduled me to do some advocating the next morning.

It was a strange thing, me acting as a proxy for Gore. I actually have a long-standing bone to pick with the vice president. It centers around a summer day in 1988, when I was working as an intern in the U.S. Senate. I was walking up some stairs at the Russell Senate Building when I looked up and saw Gore walking down. I knew who he was; he was running for president. I looked big Al in the eye and said, "Hi." He didn't reciprocate. Instead the senator peered at me coldly, kind of noisily exhaled, and turned away. It may sound petty, but Gore's harrumph pissed me off. Who does that? I told myself: "I'll never vote for that jackass."

I voted for him this year anyway, personality defects and all. And now I was going to represent Gore, my own personal harrumpher, in a process that could win him the presidency.

When I stepped into the Democratic room at the EOC on the morning of November 21, I had to sign in again. This time they looked at my driver's license, but that was the extent of the security. No one had even checked to make sure I was a Democrat. Suppose Chuck Colson and G. Gordon Liddy, perhaps disguised as old ladies, popped in with fake IDs and called themselves Democrats? This process surely could be sabotaged, I thought.

While I drank coffee and waited, three lawyers from Philadelphia arrived as observers for Gore. I wanted to ask them all kinds of questions, but I couldn't, because then they'd ask me questions, and I might have to tell them that I was a reporter. That would blow the whole deal; my lone rule was that I wasn't going to lie to anybody.

After an hourlong wait, somebody briefed me again on the process and led me down to the bullpen -- another waiting room on the second floor. Thirty minutes later I was taken to the actual counting room, where again I had to cool my heels. The room, a command post for hurricanes and other countywide emergencies, reminded me a little bit of the War Room in Dr. Strangelove. The room, as seen on TV, was full of dozens of long conference tables packed with counters, or "inspectors," as they were called, and observers like me. The chairs were high backed and quite comfortable. Built into the walls were huge TV screens, some ten feet tall, turned on but muted. BSO deputies were everywhere.

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