MAXWELL: They’re laughing at us in Texas

8/15/2002 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper


That sound behind me is not that of a mugger about to relieve me of my hard-earned cash or a wayward longhorn fixing to pin me to a mesquite tree.

It is the ego-shattering sound of ridicule. I am a Floridian, a newspaper columnist who writes about politics. As such, I know, as does the late American novelist Henry James, that “silver-footed ironies, veiled jokes, tiptoe malices, (are) stealing to explode a huge laugh at (my) feet.”

On Thursday morning, one of my students (he has that caustic and ironic wit that I admire and fear at the same time) here at Angelo State University called out behind me as I walked from my office to the library: “Hey, professor Maxwell, did you vote in the Florida Democratic primary for governor?”

I did not want to take the bait, but I had no way of avoiding it.

“No, I didn’t have an absentee ballot,” I said, trying to hide my own amusement.

Sly West Texan that he is, he had a copy of the Dallas Morning News and showed me a headline that read: “Florida vote goes from chad to worse.”

As he held the story in my face, we had good laugh.

“Get to class!” I said, feigning outrage.

“Looks like you guys get too much sunshine.” He was having a good time.

We get too much of something in Florida, I thought. Why can’t we get an election straight anymore?

In the library, I read the article, an Associated Press account of another voting machine debacle in my home state; it is reminiscent of the historic 2000 presidential election mess. I was in Florida, in St. Petersburg, during the 2000 international embarrassment. I was among friends, colleagues and Republican enemies. At least I was home. The jokes about our collective stupidity and incompetence were inside stuff _ all in the family.

Now, however, I am in Texas of all places, home of George W. Bush, who may be in the White House because of my state’s gaffes the other time around. The cruel irony is that my own governor _ who presided over Florida’s 2000 screw-up and the current one _ is none other than Jeb Bush, the president’s brother.

Leaving the library, I headed back to my office only to run into a colleague, a native West Texan, whose greeting was a simple: “Will Janet Reno pull it out, you think?” He grinned from ear to ear, waiting for my response. He was brimful of Texas superiority.

“I live in Texas now,” I said, trying not to laugh.

“No wonder our W. won down there.”

Back in my office, I digested the ugly details of yet another voting foul-up from the state that has become famous for foul-ups. Let me see if have this correct: A full day after the polls had closed, even with $32-million spent to reform the election process since the Bush-Gore nightmare, Florida election officials did not know whether former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno or Tampa lawyer Bill McBride was the Democrat to face Republican incumbent Gov. Bush in November.

The details that have made me the laughingstock among many San Angeloans: In densely populated South Florida, where Reno is popular and was expected to whip McBride, new touchscreen voting machines malfunctioned. Some polling sites opened late. Staffers did not report to work at other places or did not learn how to use the new-fangled technology.

The funniest thing, at least to me, occurred after Gov. Bush extended polling for another two hours. What do you think happened in Hollywood (an ironic name under these circumstances)? Poll workers at one precinct who had not been informed of the two-hour extension held their door shut and hurled profanities at would-be voters.

And, once again, Florida’s African-American voters have good reason to complain the loudest. Following the 2000 presidential balloting, blacks complained that they were disenfranchised disproportionately. Most people I know laughed at these complaints, calling blacks whiners and victims of conspiracy theories.

Well, here we go again. According to official reports, nearly half of the ballots still uncounted on Wednesday were cast by African-Americans. Now, even Reno has used the word “disenfranchisement.”

So, here I am, out here in West Texas representing Florida and its apparently irreperable voting process. Here I am, the butt of jokes, albeit good-natured ones. To Floridians, though, our problems are not jokes.

Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas: “This must not happen again in November. People don’t trust our ability to run an election.”

Florence Pittelman, 83, who waited in line for hours for her Broward County polling place to finally open: “The whole world must be laughing at us. It really is a shame.”

Yes, Mrs. Pittelman, it is a shame. I do not know about the world, but I certainly can tell you that West Texas is laughing at us. And come to think of it, that Dallas Morning News headline is not funny: “Florida vote goes from chad to worse.”