Magazine article Editor & Publisher

He Broke Butterfly Story, Then Fled

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

He Broke Butterfly Story, Then Fled

Article excerpt

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. …

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