Indecision 2000: Prez Ballot Debacle in Palm Beach County, Florida (2000)

A friend and I take advantage of the Veteran's Day three-day weekend to drive down to West Palm Beach and visit the third in our trio of adventurers. We are unaware of what awaits us: to stumble into "ground zero" of the 2000 Presidential Election Debacle that exploded on the Veteran's Day weekend in downtown West Palm. Because of the razor-thin margin on the vote tally in Florida (and elsewhere), the fact that the Florida electoral college votes would determine the next president, and the significant ballot "irregularities" uncovered in Palm Beach County, all eyes throughout the nation and world are riveted on West Palm Beach—the county seat.

Our plans for the weekend are to play things by ear, so we load my truck with kayaks, mountain bikes, and scuba gear.

The first "outdoor adventure" is a trip to the county administration building, which houses the Supervisor of Elections office. Outside, the street is barricaded and closed. Large numbers of demonstrators hold Gore and Bush signs. My two favorites: "Bush is a Moron" and "If you cannot read a ballot, why are you driving a car?" The sidewalk is filled with a long line of TV cameras, tripods, bright lights, and newscasters (see photo at left). The parking lot is full of TV news trucks holding satellite dishes. At one point as we are leaving, we notice that the throng of newscasters and cameras all make a mad rush to surround someone (presumably important) in the parking lot to garner any possible scrap of breaking election news.

The next day, after returning from a bicycle adventure, we pass by the demonstration site and are disappointed to see the site empty. Fortunately, we spot a large gathering inside the Supervisor's office. Inside, we find a media circus...a zoo...bedlam. Seemingly hundreds of TV cameras, 35 mm/digital cameras, tripods, and journalists have encircled an open-air "conference room" where a county spokesman is attempting to answer shouted questions from frenzied newspeople.

After this feeding frenzy, the action moves to the next door rooms of the Supervisor's office, where large tables are set up to prepare for the manual count of the countless ballots that have been cast in the county. These rooms are surrounded by large glass windows, which allow my group and the news horde to peer inside and watch. Ballots are being held up to the light by the 3 members of the canvassing board to determine whether the "chad" had been properly punched out—thereby allowing the ballot to be officially counted. "Indents", "impressions", or "pregnant" chads are discarded. The board members mix serious study of the condition of the chads with a look of bemused people grinning about the silliness of such a task in this computerized age. Ultimately, as observers from the Bush and Gore teams look on, the board is to decide that the thousands of ballots cast on election day would need to be re-counted by hand.

On our first day of intended adventure, we return to Jonathan Dickinson State Park, where we ride the Camp Murphy single-track mountain bike trails (created and maintained by the volunteer "Club Scrub"). Camp Murphy was formerly a military base before it became the Dickinson Park. These trails form a 3.1-mile loop within a sand pine/palmetto/scrub forest that had recently been burned (photo at right). The trails are rather technical and enjoyable, partly because they have just been prepared for an "Xtreme" bicycle race the day before. The soft, sandy turns contain plastic mesh and bark to create traction and reduce erosion from the bicycle tires. Several logs are felled across the trail. The smaller ones require riding over the logs. The larger ones have log bridges or boardwalk bridges over them to allow passage. The loop passes several small, scenic ponds. Ultimately, plans are to create 30 miles of bicycle trails within the Park.

After this ride, we again ascend the "Mt. Hobe Tower" within the park. The vantage point at the top of the tower is the tallest point in Florida south of Lake Okeechobee and affords dramatic views of the surrounding area—views that are not common in the flat Florida topography. The walk to the tower has recently been improved with the installation of a wood boardwalk and tower stairs.

We then head to John D. MacArthur Beach State Park, where a long wood boardwalk crosses mangrove lagoons (cove) and eventually reaches a very attractive beach (photo at left). The Park is a very good example of remaining subtropical, coastal habitat in southeast Florida. It contains 255 acres of uplands and 535 acres of submerged lands. Rare or endangered coastal plant species found at the Park include sea lavender, beach peanut, beach star, and hand fern.

That night, we strike out on a moonlight kayak paddle under the full moon on the Intercoastal Waterway. Here, the waterway is fronted by the West Palm Beach skyline. It is an impressive experience paddling alongside the city lights and wondering if we would be apprehended by the circling police helicopter for contemplating the "dumping" of presidential ballot boxes—Boston Tea Party-like—into the water.

The next morning, we drive west to nearby Lake Okeechobee, in the northwest corner of Palm Beach County. On the drive there, we pass hundreds and thousands of acres of sugar cane plantations. The cane is in the process of being harvested and the remains burned. The lake is approximately 30 miles from east to west and 35 miles from north to south, which means that the opposite side of the lake cannot be seen. We bicycle a small portion of the dike on the southeast corner of the lake. As I bicycle the dike, I try to imagine what it was like in 1928 when a deadly hurricane, packing 160 mile-per-hour winds, made landfall at West Palm Beach on its course for the lake. The hurricane took down a 21-mile stretch of a mud dike erected to prevent lake flooding, destroying every building in the area except for two large lakeside hotels. Despite early warning to people in the area, 2,500 people died when the lake flooded. Some had fled into the branches of trees, only to discover that water moccasins had done the same. Many were killed by the poisonous bites of the snakes.

On Sunday, we tour CityPlace (photo at right), a $550 million project in downtown West Palm. The project is highly impressive and very photogenic. Essentially, it is an instant European downtown with on-street parking, colonnades, multi-story retail, office and residential buildings pulled up to the sidewalk, a church restored as a museum, and a large fountain and plaza. It is a dream of former West Palm mayor Nancy Graham, who is an advocate of the "new urbanism" principles used to design CityPlace.

 While CityPlace has a "theme park", "Disney" ambiance, it nevertheless feels quite pleasant due to its modest, human-scaled dimensions. It will certainly feel more like a "real town" as it ages and gets rough around the edges. While we are there, the pedestrian life is very prominent, creating a festive, sociable, vibrant urban atmosphere. And once the hundreds of new residential units are occupied, CityPlace is sure to become even more of a healthy 24-hour city.

Later that afternoon, we drive to the marina to board the dive boat. Unfortunately, we get lost and miss our boat, but are fortunately directed to a nearby marina to board an alternate boat leaving at the same time. Our first dive is the Princess Ann Wreck, which rests upright at a depth of 100 feet, and is near a very attractive reef system. The wreck has only recently been down (placed in 1993), but is already a nice dive. It was a 350-foot car ferry that carried up to 800 people and 200 cars across the Chesapeake Bay. Storms have shifted the upper deck to the west, which effectively doubles the width of the site. The boat can be penetrated by trained wreck divers, but since we were not trained, we did not go in to have a look at what are apparently some intact stairways and large open rooms. At the wreck, we are treated to large schools of colorful fish and at one point spotted a half dozen large barracuda.

Unfortunately, I neglect to bring along my light, which would have been a handy way to inspect the underside of the ship.

Our final dive is a drift dive at the Teardrop reef. There, we find several barrel coral, large parrot fish and angel fish, and a large lobster.


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