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After the election, when a colleague told me that the Democratic Recount Committee was asking lawyers to go to Palm Beach County to assist in the presidential election recount process, my instinct was to fly down immediately to help the vice president. That flight, however, would effectively amount to a $350 post-campaign contribution, since neither the Democrats nor my law firm would reimburse my expenses (or count the hours toward my annual billing quota). But after a federal district court declined to halt the manual recount the next Monday, I surprised everyone, including myself, by booking a late-night flight to Palm Beach County. Outwardly, I justified the trip as an attempt to fight the Florida Republican machine. Still, part of me viewed Palm Beach as the Haight-Ashbury of the moment; any political animal had to be there. Not wanting to waste any time, I arrived as instructed the next morning at a union shop’s offices just west of Palm Beach, expecting to take part in serious strategy sessions (though even my fondest hopes would only let me imagine attending low-level meetings with hopeful presidential aides). At the very least, I thought I could be one of the “observers” who ensured that pregnant chads delivered for Al Gore. Instead, I found that the people who were meeting at the union hall were not Bill Daley confidants but — surprise! — mostly union rank and file. My partisan zeal, years of legal education, and practice-sharpened skills were put to use — working a phone bank. I was asked to call voters to determine whether accusations they had previously asserted against Florida’s electoral process were valid. If their claims were serious and credible, we asked them to sign affidavits and to be interviewed by teams of (paid) litigators in anticipation of possible lawsuits. That seemed worthwhile, even if it made me look just a notch better than a Ginsu knife sales rep. But since I came to Florida to be in the middle of something, phone solicitation just didn’t measure up. I figured that I could work the phones and juggle paperwork just fine in Washington, thank you very much, so I decided to leave the safe haven of lawyers and volunteers and instead go out into the streets to engage the voters directly. And did I mention that it was sunny and 75 degrees outside? JESSE AND ME Then Jesse Jackson entered the hall — I was in the right place, after all. The Rev. Jackson spoke to us for about 15 minutes. He mentioned the “will of the people” and the importance of a “full, fair, and accurate recount,” concepts I certainly supported. But then he called on those present to “engage a major extra-legal struggle in our streets” — because the legal process was rigged by the Bush family, he claimed. This fired up the nonlawyer crowd. But to a D.C. lawyer like me, suffice to say, I was left feeling a little out of place. So it was back to my exit strategy. I grabbed a bunch of complainant questionnaires and headed south on I-95. My first stop was the Democratic headquarters for Palm Beach County, located in the Lake Ida Shopping Center in Delray Beach. More volunteers and more phone banks. And — yes — even a few voters. I asked one man milling around whether he had any complaints about the ballot. He told me he never saw the ballot because he had registered as a “motor voter” while receiving his driver’s license, and, thanks to yet another glitch in the Florida elections system, wound up being turned away from the polls. Not that his vote necessarily would have gone for Gore. The infamous “butterfly ballot” that misled some voters to pick Pat Buchanan over Gore, he said, held more interest for him than having an election winner. If he had been properly admitted, he could have beheld it in person. Call it ballot celebrity, I suppose. Not deterred, I spoke with two other people at the mall who had equally legitimate complaints, and perhaps a bit more concern about having been deprived of their votes. One was a man with a broken leg who couldn’t climb stairs, but was assigned to a polling location with no access for the disabled. Another was a well-dressed middle-aged woman who had double-punched her ballot. When I asked her why she voted twice, she said she realized while voting that she had accidentally selected Pat Buchanan, and punched for Gore just to cancel her vote. The poll monitors didn’t tell her she could get another ballot. Who knows if I — or anyone — could make a valid legal case that the preference of these voters for Gore should count, but it was clear that the election as it was run didn’t register their choice for president. After returning to the union hall for a news update, I drove to West Palm Beach, hoping to interview some radicals at a rally near the courthouse. When I got there, though, all the outdoor action had subsided; the only assembly involved 10 people two blocks away promoting what appeared to be an alternative media source by holding signs up behind increasingly frustrated foreign news television reporters. They refused to be interviewed, so I walked toward what I was told was the Emergency Operations Center, where, according to rumor, the electoral commissioners would hold an outdoor meeting. Dozens of disenfranchised were sure to show up, and I planned to interview at least some of them. I must have made a wrong turn, though, because I accidentally strolled right out of the Palm Beach “business district” and into an upscale shopping area. BUCHANAN’S BALLOTS? So I ducked into the Cheesecake Factory for a late lunch. There, four women noticed my “Gore/Lieberman 2000″ button (written in Hebrew) and immediately pegged me. “You’re here for the election mess, right?” I smiled and took out my Recount Committee checklist to ask them whether they had encountered any of the 15 specific problems listed. The choices, which were drawn from actual claims by voters reached by the phone bank, ranged from the silly (being offended by rude poll workers) to the outrageous (being locked out of the polls at 7 p.m. because the line of voters trailed out the building). But they didn’t wait for me to go through the list. Each claimed to have voted erroneously for Buchanan because they couldn’t see where the holes lined up, and each said they asked for help but received none from poll monitors. “Al Gore wants a recount,” said one, “but you can look at my ballot a hundred times and it will still say I voted for Pat Buchanan.” When they finished talking at me, nearly two hours and multiple subjects later, I gathered the questionnaires I had completed, drove them back to the union hall, and dropped off my rental car at the airport. And while waiting for my flight home, the guy sitting next to me, who must not have been a Washingtonian, asked me if I was a lawyer. The conversation continued (approximately): “Yes. I’m working for Al Gore.” “Really. What are you doing?” “I’m collecting evidence of electoral wrongdoing by the state and county authorities.” “Have you found anything?” I told him about seeing Jesse Jackson; interviewing the disabled man, the motor voter, and the elderly women at the Cheesecake Factory; and milling around the county courthouse. “They pay you to do that? Sounds like a great job.” I thought about correcting him, but decided that I agreed with his assessment. I didn’t strategize with Warren Christopher. I didn’t confer with any radicals. I didn’t engage in any recount “mischief.” And I didn’t get paid. But I did try to help Al Gore and the process. And I was there. Peter G. Freeman is an associate at Shaw Pittman in Washington, D.C.

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