On the wall of his office in downtown Tallahassee, Ion Sancho, the county supervisor of elections, has a large aerial photograph of the state Capitol and surrounding buildings taken during the thirty-six-day battle for Florida that followed the 2000 presidential election. It’s one of those photographs that become more revealing the closer you look. Lined up on the western side of the Capitol are the television trucks that took up their positions on the morning after the election–directly in front of then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris’s ground-floor office windows–and that, by Thanksgiving, appeared to have become a permanent part of the landscape.
What the occupants of those trucks couldn’t see, but what Sancho now points out with the morbid enthusiasm of a tour guide at Dallas’s Dealey Plaza, was the daily route taken by Harris’s secret Republican Party minder, a lawyer and lobbyist called Mac Stipanovich, who sat with her throughout the ballot battle and guided her every move so they could, in his words, “bring this election in for a landing.” Stipanovich, as Sancho shows me, parked in a lot on the other side of the Capitol and then took an underground passageway beneath the building so the media could not see him come and go.
On the roofs of two adjacent buildings, Tallahassee’s City Hall and a State Senate office complex, black-clad police snipers are clearly visible. “Just in case those pesky voters got out of hand in their demands to have their votes counted,” Sancho comments sardonically. Curiously, their guns are pointing not at the Republican-controlled state legislature, or even at the streets, but rather at the State Supreme Court, six of whose seven members at the time were Democratic appointees. The court’s rulings in favor of full manual recounts in contested southern Florida counties provided Al Gore with his strongest lifeline in the closing stages of the electoral battle and were consequently denounced as intolerable partisan interference by armies of lawyers and spokesmen for the Bush campaign.
These days, the Florida establishment’s guns are pointing–metaphorically, anyway–at Sancho himself. The issue is not that he is a Democrat in a GOP-controlled state. On the contrary, as a conscientious election administrator he keeps himself rigorously above the partisan fray. The problem, for Governor Jeb Bush’s administration, is that Sancho is one of the few election supervisors who actually takes his job and his civic responsibility seriously. And that has put him front and center in the battle for fair elections–not only in Florida but across the entire country.
Sancho believes the voters deserve nothing less than a reliable, transparent and publicly accountable electoral system. He is deeply suspicious of turning the process over to a small handful of private voting-machine manufacturers whose products have been shown time and again–most recently in studies issued by Princeton and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice–to be poorly programmed, riddled with security holes and vulnerable to both uncorrectable error and undetectable foul play. “Why is making something open and transparent to citizens such an anathema?” he asks. “Unless you have a guilty conscience, you should have nothing to hide.”