The fury came in waves Thursday at the Lakes of Delray retirement community, an enclave of 1,408 modest townhouses that Palm Beach County election records show cast 47 votes for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan on Tuesday.
"Impossible," raged Shirley Datz, a retired systems analyst. "Even one vote for Buchanan would be impossible here."
"Never!" shouted Frank Ventry, 84, who has voted in every presidential election since Franklin D. Roosevelt but ripped up his ballot Tuesday when he realized he accidentally voted for Buchanan.
"I'm outraged," added the community's president, Arthur Robb, who said his wife, Sylvia, was so confused by the ballot that she mistakenly cast her vote for Buchanan rather than Vice President Al Gore.
"It's something that never should have happened. It's something that couldn't have happened," Robb said. "You see, the average age here is 75. The community is 95% Jewish. It's almost entirely Democratic."
Welcome to Precinct 162G, which chalked up the highest single vote tally for Buchanan in this South Florida county. It is one of more than a dozen precincts of similar demographics where election records and interviews with residents show Buchanan scored an inexplicable surge of votes Tuesday.
These are the faces and anguish behind the ballot controversy that threatens to paralyze the U.S. presidential elections--and just a handful of the outraged voices in a vast and diverse county that could hold the fate of the White House in its hands.
The dispute centers on the two-page ballot the county designed specifically to help its estimated 235,000 elderly residents better read the names of candidates. Democratic Party officials and many voters in enclaves like the Lakes of Delray now say the change led as many as 3,407 Gore supporters to punch Buchanan's name--and as many as 19,000 others to mistakenly punch both names on ballots that county officials have since disqualified.
Leon Teger, who edits the community's monthly Lakes of Delray Times and served as chief of a nearby precinct on election day, is certain the ballot cost Gore a victory.
"Everyone was confused by the ballot at my precinct, especially the older voters," Teger said. "But I couldn't call anyone. The phone there was out from the time I opened up until 3 p.m. I understand there was similar problems everywhere in the county."
Pearl Seltzer agreed. She worked the election at the nearby Heritage Park nursing home, where half the voters cannot see or hear well. "All we could do is help them put the ballots in the box.
"I'm sure they made lots of mistakes. It was pathetic. And it hurts so deeply. I'm sure it happened all over."
Palm Beach County has one of the nation's largest populations of senior citizens. Its 1 million residents also range from the fabulous wealth of Boca Raton's Meisner Park villas and the exclusive Jupiter Country Club set of Tiger Woods and Celine Dion to the haunting poverty of the immigrant and black enclaves in Riviera Beach and Lake Worth.
The county's 2,023 square miles spread from the swampy shores of Lake Okeechobee to the swank, seaside cafes and beaches of West Palm Beach, Juno Beach and Singer Island on the Atlantic. The average per-capita income is $38,000 and the median age is 40, said Maria Bello, the county's demographic's chief.
Cries of Protest at Other Communities
Against that backdrop, county election records show that the votes cast for Buchanan--now a key barometer of confusion at the polls for many here--were disproportionately clustered at retirement communities such as Lakes of Delray. Palm Beach County, by far, had the highest Buchanan vote in the state.
On Thursday, as Palm Beach County's ballot recount continued, there were similar cries of protest at other such communities. At King's Point, an enormous complex of retirees just up the road, 53 Buchanan votes were recorded at its six precincts, where some residents Thursday echoed the argument that any votes for the Reform Party nominee were unimaginable.
To a voter, elderly Jewish residents countywide said the mistake was made all the more agonizing because they view Buchanan's ultraconservative views as anti-Semitic and anti-black.
More than 10 miles south, at the Century Village retirement complex, there were so many angry voices that MSNBC television set up a makeshift studio in the lobby, broadcasting their outrage live throughout the day. Among them: a Holocaust survivor who said she has lost 3 pounds since mistakenly casting a ballot for Buchanan. Election records show that 57 others there voted for him.
Still farther south, at the Whisper Walk development and its Precinct 194D, 30 other Buchanan ballots were cast. Residents William Stein and his wife, Natalie, who retired here from New York, explained how that happened:
"I wanted to vote for Gore, but I punched the second hole, which was Buchanan. I didn't know it until I watched the news that night and saw how I did it," Stein said.
"I felt pretty stupid at first. But now I feel like the whole thing was a crooked deal. It's a shame that in a country like this it should happen."
Added Natalie Stein: "It was terrible. I cannot tell you how bad I felt. And I felt so bad for the Gore family. They had no right to take Florida away from them."
'We've Been Bush-Whacked'
At the nearby public library, in another precinct that recorded about 40 Buchanan votes, Paula Landau said she's still not sure whether she voted for Gore. But she's sure of the outcome: "We've been Bush-whacked."
Back at the Lakes of Delray, 80-year-old Ed Butler was more circumspect. He too hoped for a revote but added: "In all my years of living in this wonderful country of ours, whether we win this or lose this, I am experiencing one of the greatest events in American history.
"Democracy is working. We have the right to challenge. We have the right to speak out."
* GRAPHIC MISTAKES
The flawed ballot putting tally in doubt shows how dots and arrows can shape our lives. E1
* UNIQUE CIVICS LESSON
The questions looming over the election give students a learning opportunity. E1