Roundtable: Another Close, Contested Florida Vote? Some Floridians are waiting up to two hours to cast their ballot in early voting. What does Florida bode this time around? Reporters Eric Deggans and Marc Caputo join Farai Chideya with more.

Roundtable: Another Close, Contested Florida Vote?

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From NPR News, this is News and Notes. I am Farai Chideya. Some Floridians are waiting up to two hours to cast their ballots in early voting. The state's vote was the crux of the contested 2000 election. So what does Florida bode this time around?

You've got two reporters from the Sunshine State, Eric Deggans, a media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, and Marc Caputo, a state policy and politics reporter for The Miami Herald. Hi, guys.

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (Media Critic, St. Petersburg Times): Hey.

Mr. MARC CAPUTO (State Policy and Politics Reporter, Miami Herald): How are you?

CHIDEYA: Great. So, let's talk about these early voters. They are rushing to the polls. Some people have had to stand in line in Florida for two hours. So, Marc, what do you know about how officials are dealing with this?

Mr. CAPUTO: We just got off a conference call with the supervisors of all the counties and the secretary of state. They all report that things are going smoothly, except that, yes, democracy has a price. And early voting has a price, and that's waiting in long lines. One thing that we do know is that they're largely Democratic.

In Florida, normally the absentee ballots that are cast skew Republican, the early votes skew Democrat. We're finding that now Republicans had jumped out to a lead, and as of yesterday when you factor in everything, Republicans were ahead by about 12,000 votes. As of this morning now, the number of Democratic ballots cast has outpaced Republicans by about a thousand. So, that's where we are right now.

CHIDEYA: Well, you have very specific information. It sounds as if people are taking this extremely seriously. What about the evolution and - you know, I don't want you to belabor this point, but how much between the contested 2000 election, which, you know, kind of dragged on for over a month in terms of counting ballots and legal challenges, and now, have voting technologies changed? Or are people using systems that are pretty similar to the ones they used in 2000?

Mr. CAPUTO: Well, not at all. In fact, the legislature banned punch-card voting machines which were at the center of the butterfly ballot and also the caterpillar ballot. There was in Jacksonville a dispute in the 2000 elections. Then the large counties went to touch-screen voting machines and ATM-style, but those have actually got banned last year, except for blind people.

And now we're using optical-scanned ballots, so we've had three presidential elections with basically three different types of technology. So, it's a little different now, but now there's a paper trail, a paper ballot, which can enable people to more closely track how votes were cast.

Mr. DEGGANS: I would break in here too, and say that one other thing that's troubled me about how our voting systems have evolved over the years, is that they seem to be dictated more by political issues, than actual effectiveness. One of the arguments against the current system we have, where you sort of fill in bubbles on a card, is that there's a- there's much more - there seems to be more of a possibility for voter error.

But our current governor, one of his big, you know, pushes when he was running for election was that, you know, we should have a paper trail. And it sort of became this political issue, where people didn't necessarily look at what system would be most effective for Florida voters. I reported on our attempt.

A bunch of news organizations in Florida went back, and looked at all the ballots from the 2000 election, and found essentially, that because there was a confusing ballot in Palm Beach County that led to a lot of people voting for a candidate they didn't intend to, that was what really screwed up the election. So, it's been troubling to see these voting systems constantly changed, but without a real focus on what the real problems might be.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, we actually had some interesting conversations with a couple of news makers. We spoke with Eric Holder, senior advisor and senior legal counsel to the Obama campaign yesterday, about the team that his campaign is assembling. He said his camp is hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst.

Mr. ERIC HOLDER (Senior Advisor and Legal Counsel, Obama Presidential Campaign): We're hoping that there will not be anything by way of voter suppression efforts, where people will be challenged unnecessarily, or impediments will be placed in front of people who want to exercise their rights to vote.

CHIDEYA: We also talked to George Terwilliger, a legal advisor to the McCain campaign. And he is keeping an eye on the issue of false voter registration.

Mr. GEORGE TERWILLIGER (Legal Advisor, McCain Presidential Campaign): If there is a false vote, then the vote of every legitimate voter is diluted, and the very heart of the franchise of democracy is threatened.

CHIDEYA: Marc, going back to the whole question of, you know, all of this early voting. What sense do you get of the teams that are building up? I mean, where there - do we know if there were for example any observers - outside observers around these early voting?

Mr. CAPUTO: Oh, in fact, we do know. And the interesting thing about this conference call that was just held with the supervisor of elections from these different counties is that, the poll watchers hired both by the Obama campaign and the McCain campaign, or the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, the pool watchers are there to monitor everything, are turning out to be a huge headache for a lot of election supervisors.

Apparently they were getting nosy. They were getting in the way. They're snooping. They're getting behind the counters. They say, we're almost doing it. And in Volusia County in Deltona, the city of Deltona, two poll watchers, or at least one of them was probably a poll watcher, got in a, quote, "belly-bumping dispute," where they almost got into a fist fight.

So, what were finding is that both of these camps, while there representing their constituencies, are also fueling some of the anger of their constituencies. And it's kind of boiling up into these poll-watcher disputes you're seeing happening. The election supervisors are kind of caught in the middle of it and they're grousing like, you know, these people are just kind of getting in their hair.

The big question is going to be on Election Day and about these challenges - these voter challenges. The way Florida law works is that you can essentially challenge someone as a voter - as being a legitimate voter, and generally will force him to cast a provisional ballot, and then there is a whole other process to get that provisional ballot counted. So, that could be a potential headache.

Right now we're not seeing it, but it's Florida, so there's a high possibility that, you know, 8 P.M., November 4th, we're just going to be starting to get the results, and who knows what they're going to show.

CHIDEYA: Eric, what about virtual belly-bumping and by that, I mean, in the media. What trends have you noticed among the campaigns and the kind of messaging that they're putting out? You have, of course, Senator Obama taking a little break right now to go visit his ailing grandmother, Senator McCain in Florida, but what kind of messaging are you hearing overall from the campaigns? What are you noticing as a media critic?

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, what's obvious is that they both have trained a barrage of television ads on the TV audiences in Florida. And McCain's ads, as you'd might expect, center on Obama's - his allegations that Obama lacks experience, and also tries to raise questions about his judgment, by referring to his association with people like former Weather Ground - Weather Underground leader, Bill Ayers, and things like that.

Obama has ads that try to link John McCain to George Bush, and talk a lot about him voting with the president 90 percent of the time, and they even have a video clip of McCain himself affirming the statistic.

So, these are - you know, these are all messages that would not be new to anybody who's been paying attention to the campaign. And it's interesting to see this new poll that was released that was a cooperative between my newspaper, and Marc's newspaper, and a few other news outlets, that indicates that independents seems to be swinging towards Obama, because of the views about the economy, it seems.

CHIDEYA: I want to move on to one other issue, and that is very much along the lines of the economy. You've got the world's stock markets plunging again today. Yesterday, former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, admitted he had too much faith in a free-market economy.

Now, for years he was regarded as someone who could do no wrong. What did you think of his statements? And I'll start with you, Marc. Yesterday, and the overall idea of falling on his sword a bit over his strategy around shaping the economy.

Mr. CAPUTO: Well, if you ask me personally, it's nice to hear a political figure, albeit, you know, he was in an appointed role and he no longer is, actually saying he was wrong. One of the things we get too often is that mistakes were made. Things are in the passive voice, and people don't actually step up and say, oops, or I made a mistake. If Florida - this is the state that the economy is basically built on the construction industry, and the construction industry's bottomed out. We've lost more than 100,000 jobs in a year's worth of time. State budget's tax collections have decreased by about six billion dollars in a year's worth of time. One in every 174 homes are in foreclosure. It's a hard-hit state by the economic crisis, things are going slow.

It's also a big state, it's not easy to get for - it's almost as far to get from Pensacola to Chicago, as if Pensacola to Key West. So we - you know, we have all of these different issues that we have to face, you know. No longer high gas prices bedeviling people, but people can't afford to buy new cars, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

People are losing their jobs. So, it's not a state where you can afford not to pay attention to the economy, or not to try to fix it. Getting back to Eric's point, that was probably one of the biggest criticisms from our pollsters when looking at the numbers over McCain as it is, that he wasn't paying enough attention to that. And now it appears he is.

CHIDEYA: Well, Greenspan told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that, quote, "We are in a once-in-a-century credit tsunami." And again, this was a question that even he now is acknowledging of whether or not his decision to keep interest rates low, helped create the housing bubble.

Marc, you gave us a very detailed sense of what's going on. And I've been to different parts of Florida fairly often, particularly the Miami area. And just looking at all the condos with that kind of blue rap on the new windows, and thinking, well, what's going to happen to all those places that are finished, but unoccupied.

But Eric, you get the last word in this. It's one thing to have people falling on their swords, it's another thing to rebuild the economy. What signs are you seeing of how things will be covered again from the media perspective.

Have you seen changes in how the media is covering the economy, whether it's to be much more detailed, or to be more people focused. What are you seeing on that regard?


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEGGANS: What I've seen is - I've seen, you know, financial news outlets trying to capitalize on the incredible interest that we have in the economy. But what I've also seen is that pundits and commentators who were dead wrong about what was going on, are the people who have the most visibility now.

And I'm thinking specifically of CNBC's Jim Cramer. He's made a lot of mistakes in judging what's going to happen with the stock market. And yet now, he's regularly featured on "The Today Show." He's regularly featured in other NBC news outlets, because there's so much interest in financial news.

But what I also say is, I'm not as hardened by Alan Greenspan's admission, because this whole congressional hearing seem to be about pointing the finger of blame at different people. You know, calling all these segments of the economy before Congress, and telling them, you messed up, you messed up.

And of course, nobody's telling Congress that they messed up too. And part of - what we've come to understand I think, number one, is that the people who were supposed to understand how this economy was working, didn't really understand it. From Jim Cramer to Alan Greenspan. They couldn't understand the effect of not regulating some of these really complex sectors of the economy, such as credit-default swaps.

CHIDEYA: Mm-hmm. OK...

Mr. DEGGANS: And the other thing we need to do is stop the finger pointing and have somebody step forward with a solution. And that's something that frankly gets delayed…

CHIDEYA: All right.

Mr. DEGGANS: When all we do is have all this public blame-gaming.

CHIDEYA: All right, gentleman. Thank you.

Mr. DEGGANS: Thank you.

Mr. CAPUTO: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We were speaking to Eric Deggans, media critic for the Saint Petersburg Times. Spoke to us from the Pointer Institute Studios in Saint Petersburg. And Marc Caputo, state policy and politics reporter for The Miami Herald, who joined us from WFSU in Tallahassee, Florida. Just ahead, community organizing in voting.

CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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