Florida Jews may hold key to presidency

WASHINGTON, Nov. 8 (JTA) – In the end, the selection of the next president of the United States came down in many ways to voters in heavily Jewish South Florida.

And in a major twist, the votes that might have mattered most were the ones elderly Jews may have inadvertently cast for Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party candidate known for his anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements.

Florida’s 25 electoral votes hung in the balance throughout the night Tuesday, as both Al Gore and George W. Bush were declared Florida’s winner at different points during the night, only to have the state wind up as the ultimate wild card.

With both houses of Congress staying Republican for the next two years, many Jewish activists, who tend to push a more liberal agenda, were looking to the presidential election to give them some allies in the Washington power structure.

The outcome of the congressional races was disappointing to many Jewish groups, who worry that many of the legislative issues they were hoping to advance in the next Congress will have to wait at least another two years.

Particularly on domestic issues such as hate crimes legislation and gun control, the Jewish organizational agenda is likely to face the same hurdles they did in the 106 th Congress.

In the wee hours of the morning Wednesday, after the Bush campaign had started celebrating and Gore had conceded defeat in a phone call to the Texas governor – a call he later retracted – it looked like the GOP had accomplished a trifecta, control of both houses of Congress and the executive branch.

But state officials ordered a recount of the presidential race in Florida, after seeing it was being called by a margin of less than a half of one percent of the votes. Results of the outcome were not expected before Thursday.

At the center of it all were ballots in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, which have a large Jewish population.

Although Jews made up only 5 percent of Florida’s vote, a large bulk of the constituency was from that area, which includes many senior citizen communities.

“Those numbers we knew were very heavily Democratic,” said media consultant Matthew Dorf, who spent election night at Gore headquarters in Nashville. “They happen to also be the Jewish districts.”

Also needed to be counted were overseas absentee ballots, which will include Florida voters traveling abroad and those who live in Israel, as well as members of the military.

The state accepts overseas ballots up to 10 days after Election Day.

What could prove pivotal – and portends a legal battle – is a group of ballots that may have been inadvertently cast for Buchanan.

U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) told CNN that voters in Palm Beach County, a heavily Jewish area, were leaving the polling place crying because they had voted for Buchanan by accident.

Some voters were apparently confused because of the way the ballot was structured.

Ballots showed candidates on both sides of the ballot, in every-other-page order. So while Bush/Cheney was immediately followed by Gore/Lieberman on the left page, interjected between them was Buchanan.

“There is no doubt that there was much confusion at Palm Beach County yesterday at the ballot box,” Wexler told CNN.

He said Buchanan received 3,000 votes in the county, compared to an average of 400 in other districts.

It is unclear whether those votes were all Jews, or how many of those voters actually intended to vote for Gore, but with just hundreds of votes dividing the candidates, they could be significant.

Wexler said he was unsure how the mistake could be resolved.

Voters who feel they selected the wrong candidate started deluging the local board of elections Tuesday afternoon, said Jeff Klein, executive vive president of the Jewish Federation of Palm Beach County.

Klein said he himself used the paper ballot in question, and said it was easy to punch the hole for the wrong candidate.

“If you didn’t pay close attention, you could have easily” voted for Buchanan, Klein said, who added that Palm Beach County is the most Jewish county in the United States.

The irony of Buchanan siphoning off Gore votes did not escape Tammy Jacobson, who works at the Kaplan Jewish Community Center in West Palm Beach.

“I’m doubting myself,” she said Wednesday morning at a staff meeting that turned into a discussion about Jewish voters concerned about their vote.

“And what about the seniors? Some people said, ‘If you have questions, you should have asked.’ Well, I waited 25 minutes in line, and the people were sitting behind the desk taking your name – you didn’t feel there was anyone to ask. And if the seniors could get themselves to the polling station, do you think after that, they’re really going to grab someone and say, ‘Excuse me, I don’t understand?’ No!”

In addition, the sample ballot that was sent in the mail was laid out differently from the actual ballot.

It is feared that the confusion may have spread beyond the elderly. Rushed parents taking kids to school, third shift workers and others on tight morning or lunchtime schedules might have missed their intended candidate.

The effect is obvious to Lisa Stoch, another JCC employee who passed around a petition at the center calling for a re-vote.

“Buchanan didn’t even get 20,000 in the whole state of Florida, and he got 3,400 in Palm Beach County – something’s not right,” she said. “What percentage of that 3,400 were people that thought they were voting for Gore?”

Stoch rallied a meeting of Holocaust survivors early Wednesday, triumphantly announcing that “all of them have agreed to sign” the petition.

Meanwhile, concern surfaced Wednesday that a ballot box in heavily Jewish Fort Lauderdale had not been counted, adding to the confusion.

The significance of the Jewish vote in the state counters the prevailing logic before Election Day.

With an assumption that the majority of Jews would be voting Democratic, as they traditionally do, both candidates were courting the Arab vote, seeing it as key to winning Michigan and the White House.

In the end, Gore won Michigan handily Tuesday. The breakdown of the Arab vote was not immediately available.

“Any one group can claim they provided the margin of victory,” Dorf said. “Al Gore and Joe Lieberman made a very strong play for the Jewish vote in Florida.”

Lieberman had visited the Sunshine State so often, he had joked he felt like he was running for local elections.

Nationwide, Gore captured 79 percent of the Jewish vote, with 19 percent for Bush and 1 percent for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, according to Voter News Service.

Jews made up four percent of the voting bloc nationwide. Nader received 96,000 votes in the state.

Many of the issues of concern to Jews will ultimately be decided by who controls the White House.

The next president will inherit a troubled Middle East that could require new thinking after the collapse of the yearslong peace process.

In addition, the next president may select as many as three Supreme Court justices over the next few years.

Those justices could decide key cases regarding abortion rights, school vouchers, gay rights and issues relating to separation of church and state.

But Jewish activists are also concerned that Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress could place their agenda at the bottom of the priority pile.

With the Senate leaning toward an even split between Democrats and Republicans on Wednesday morning, the outcome would be affected by the outcome of the presidential race.

And the GOP held an advantage in both scenarios. A Bush victory would mean incoming Vice President Dick Cheney would hold the tie-breaking vote.

And if the Democrats win the White House, Joseph Lieberman would leave the Senate for the vice presidency, leaving the Republican governor of Connecticut to select a member of his party to replace him, breaking the tie.

For its part, the House of Representatives will remain in the hands of Republicans as well, by a very slim margin.

Several key allies of the Jewish community in Congress, while a few new friendly faces will emerge in the 107th Congress, according to officials at Jewish organizations.

“You’re not getting massive changes in legislative programs because the majorities are too narrow,” said Ira Foreman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

But Matt Brooks, director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, sees it differently.

“Congress is going to need to operate in a bi-partisan fashion with the White House,” said “You’re going to see a very different climate in Washington now.”

Mark Stern, co-director of the American Jewish Congress’ Legal Department, said there may be efforts to bring issues of school prayer and vouchers to the congressional floor.

But Stern said issues of church and state separation will not show favoritism toward Christianity, as some American Jews feared.

Rather, Stern said there will be a “push toward insistence that religion get equal treatment as other ideologies.”

(JTA correspondent Sharon Samber in Washington and Tom Brodigan in Florida contributed to this report.)

NEXT STORY