Guardian of the Ballot Box
Sancho is both a workaholic and something of a micro-manager, so he is intimately familiar with every aspect of his operation. He approaches his job a little like an old-fashioned ward boss in a city machine. He makes it his business to drive around the county dropping off last-minute absentee ballots, say, or to look up the records of a voter who believes he has been registered as a member of the wrong party. His staff gives his mobile phone number to anyone with a complaint or query, and he answers each of them in person. On election day he can be found racing from one precinct to another in his open-top red truck, a white hat protecting his bald head from the punishing Florida sun, checking on reports of malfunctioning machinery or candidates getting too close to the voters, or precinct staff who show any signs of irresponsible behavior. He drinks too much coffee and he drives too fast, but his energy is also unflagging. "I'm the troubleshooter," he says. "My job is to find the flaws my employees have not identified."
His personal contact with the voters also does wonders for his popularity: Election day typically sees him showered with compliments wherever he goes. "I appreciate your stamina. It's so refreshing to find someone who, regardless of partisan politics, stands up for what he believes in," a retired county worker (who did not want to be named) told him on primary day in September at a precinct at Tallahassee Community College. She took me aside and added: "You have to admire someone who refuses to be crushed by his opponents. And he's fought some big dogs."
The big dogs in Florida are responsible for several amendments to the state election law, many of them either strikes against openness and accountability or plays for partisan advantage for the Republican Party, or both. Election observers, both domestic and international, are now banned from voting precincts--a clear violation of international norms to which the United States subscribes. Challenging the eligibility of individual voters, a tactic employed predominantly by Republicans, has now become easier. The rules for absentee balloting, regarded as a net benefit for the Republicans, are also significantly laxer. But early voting, regarded as a net source of Democratic votes since it was introduced in the 2004 election cycle, has been made slightly more restrictive.
Most damaging, though, is last year's rewrite of the rules on recounts. Section 102.166 of the state election law is titled "Manual recounts" but makes clear that such a concept is, to all intents and purposes, now obsolete. The best the law offers, in the event of a very close race, is a re-examination of paper ballots discarded by the machines the first time around, either because of overvoting (when the ballot appears to have been marked more than once for a given race) or undervoting (when the ballot appears not to have been marked at all). The sort of full manual recounts that voting-rights advocates (and, to a halfhearted degree, the Gore campaign) demanded in 2000 are now, literally, outlawed. We'll never see another voting meltdown in Florida--not because the system has been fixed but because the mechanism for demonstrating that a meltdown has occurred has simply been removed. Between the introduction of paperless computers and the abolition of recounts, what Florida is left with is, essentially, an electoral regime based on blind faith.
In Leon County things are a little different. Because Sancho, like the state's sixty-six other county election supervisors, is an elected official, he wields far more discretion over the management of his office than his counterparts in, say, Ohio, who answer to supervisory boards made up of appointees from the two major parties. He can't break state law, but he can go beyond it if he chooses--keeping early voting sites open up to election day for the convenience of absentee voters who have missed the postal deadline, for example, or conducting postelection audits to make sure the tabulation machinery is working correctly.
In short, Ion Sancho remains the master of his domain--for the moment. When he showed up at his own suburban precinct at the Indian Springs Baptist Church on primary day, he received an amiable joshing from the staff. "Would you like to try out our new touch screen?" a worker called Casey asked him.
"No," he replied, smiling. "I want my paper ballot."
Casey told him he'd heard the same thing from a lot of people. Sancho shot a glance at the TSx sitting forlornly on its own side of the room and added: "Those things aren't hot sellers right now, are they?"