History and the people who make it: Sue Gunzberger

During the contentious Bush/Gore presidential election of 2000, Sue Gunzberger served as county commissioner for Broward County Florida. On Dec. 19, 2001, Julian M. Pleasants, as representative for the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, interviewed Commissioner Gunzberger about her experiences as part of the historical ballot recounts. The following excerpts are part of that interview. 

To read the full interview, visit the UF digital collections at tinyurl.com/Iguana1447 and click the document image on the upper right. Use the double arrow keys to advance pages.

JP: Give me some idea of what Election Day was like for you.

SG: It was the longest day of my life, because I was on the canvassing board. I started with a commission meeting at 10 [a.m.] and by 7 [p.m.] I had to be at the warehouse to start supervising the counting of all the ballots. Usually on an election that large, it is finished by 2 in the morning. We finished at around 7 in the morning, knew that there was less than [a] one percent margin of difference and that we would have to have a recount. We had to be back at the warehouse by about 1 p.m., I believe.

JP: Did you have any idea at that point what an extraordinary event this was going to be?

SG: No, I just thought it would be a routine recount and that would be the end of it. 

JP: Once you get the notification that the statewide election is one-half of one percent, which triggers an automatic recount, what did you do, precisely, under those conditions?

SG: We sent all the ballots through the machines again and had a recount, as the law prescribed. 

JP: I am sure you are aware that something like forty-two counties did not recount the ballots, merely tallied the totals of each machine, which by my understanding, is not what the law requires.

SG: We did what the law required.

JP: At this point, there was some talk about missing ballots.

SG: That was fallacious. There were never any missing ballots. There were ballots that came in later because of some transportation problem, but the ballots that were so-called missing never were. 

JP: Do you think that Jane Carroll, who is the election supervisor for Broward County, was prepared for the tremendous number of voters that turned out?

SG: I do not think that certain precincts were adequately staffed and in that [respect] she was not prepared. Especially in the southwest where they had hundreds of thousands of voters in a precinct that people were in line for two and three and four hours.

JP: One of the issues, always, is the law itself. The argument was that you could not have a hand recount unless there was an error in vote tabulation.

SG: Between the original vote and the automatic recount, they were not the same, so we already knew there was an error in tabulation. We had met the legal definition of the reason to have a hand recount. 

JP: You have in the past, as I understand, always favored hand recounts as a more accurate way of determining the correct vote.

SG: Yes, and I am disturbed now that we are going to touchscreen voting. At this point it has not been certified that the voters will be given a printed ballot of what they voted for on the touchscreen that would then be deposited in the ballot box, so that if we needed a recount, we could have an accurate hand recount again. Instead, we will have to rely on mechanisms within the touchscreen system itself.  

JP: Is there a fail-safe mechanism, so that if someone casts an over-vote, the machine will notify them of that?

SG: They cannot and we sure had a lot of over-votes. 

JP: How well do you think your voting machines operated? How much error would there have been due to machine failure?

SG: I would say that there was one precinct [where] it was very evident that there was machine failure, because most of the ballots from that precinct looked like a Braille card on the reverse side.

JP: They were miscalibrated somehow?

SG: Yes. None of them got into the proper hole, so that we knew that that precinct had a problem, so their votes were never counted on the first go-around.

JP: Could you count them at all?

SG: It was real easy because they were right by. There is a big enough square that you could see who they were voting for.  They never got through the hole to dislodge a chad.  They were on top, they may have been on the bottom, but you knew who the votes were for. 

JP: How many voters would you say voted incorrectly in terms of voter error as opposed to machine error?

SG: I wish I could give you a number.  The number of people who voted for more than one presidential candidate were in the hundreds. I had people who voted for eight out of nine in the presidential race. 

JP: What was the general strategy of the Republicans during all of this counting?

SG: The Republicans brought in an awful lot of people from very far away. They tried to intimidate us. Each of us had a Republican and a Democrat [observing] each member of the canvassing board.  

JP: There were, at least in the press and from the Democratic attorneys that I talked to, Republican attorneys whose job was to do nothing more than delay the process. Were you aware of that?

SG: Yes. They came in a couple of times, they dragged us into court once during the process and then we were going back and we were told to turn around. Judge Lee found a way to keep the counting going while we were dragged into court one time. He got so mad at Bill Scherer that he threw him out and told him he could not come back in.  We got it done, no matter how much they tried to delay, we just pushed forward. We never stopped. We had a resolve to get the job done and get it done within the time.

JP: As you were counting, were they making comments? Were they threatening in any way? How did they respond? Let us just say you counted a disputed ballot for Gore, would the Republicans protest?

SG: They did not protest, they wrote it down. They did not delay us that way.  They talked to themselves. Look, we had all of the big Republicans sit at the table while we were counting, pretending that they were interested. A whole bunch of them. They would come up there and frankly they were very sweet and nice to us.Then they would go down and then they trashed us on TV when they were agreeing with everything we said.

JP: I do remember one case that Engler was shown a vote and agreed with a vote, went outside and said they are miscounting.

SG: So did Dole. You know what? It meant nothing to us. We discounted all the publicity. I think the hardest thing was getting used to being in a fishbowl.  Everything we did was observed by the press and TV. We did not have one minute of solitude. When we would eat our supper, take a twenty-minute break, the TV cameras would be on us then. Talk about reality TV.  

One day I was so tired of never seeing fresh air, I started to sneak out the back door to go out and feel what daylight feels like and the darn press starts following me and peppering me with questions, at which time I fled right back in, because we only let a certain amount of press into the room where we were doing our canvassing. 

JP: Were you aware of how much impact all of these negative comments were having on the entire race?

SG: I was not aware of the impact. I was aware of what was going on. I have a spouse, I have a son, both of who kept me informed what was going on in the outside world. In fact, I have a son who is very politically astute. When I started getting death threats on the internet, he was the one who called the FBI. When it was over, I had 45,000 hateful e-mails at my office. It had gotten so bad that both judges and myself ended up with 24/7 police protection.

JP: Everywhere you went, you had protection?

SG: I had two sheriff’s deputies with me from the day before Thanksgiving until it ended. It had gotten very bad in terms of threats.

JP: Did other people get similar threats?  Did Judge Lee receive threats?

SG: Yes.  

JP: How did you respond to election supervisor Carroll leaving? Some people in the press said that she had abandoned her post.

SG: I do not think it was my place to respond or to make a judgement. That was her decision. I much would have preferred Jane to stay. She did not delay things at all. Judge Rosenberg had a tendency to delay the proceedings as we went through it. He was very slow, very deliberate. I thought [he was] exceedingly slow, hoping not to finish the job on time.  At lunchtime, all of us would sit together and have lunch and he would go off with operatives from the Republican party. 

JP: Do you think you were treated fairly by the press, both local and national press?

SG: I think they saw me differently than I see myself. Some of them saw me as very partisan. I did not see myself that way. I thought I was being very fair in my deliberations.

JP: Obviously, in the very emotional political climate, every partisan will see the opposition as partisan.

SG: Right. I felt that besides the internet sites I told you about, Fox TV was very negative when it came to me as well and I felt it was unfair. 

JP: There were two circumstances, one in Seminole, one in Martin County where the elections supervisors allowed Republicans to come in and put in voter identification numbers.

SG: Yes, I thought that was absolutely wrong. Republicans did all sorts of illegal maneuvers and they got away with it.  

JP: The argument is that the Republicans won the public-relations battle and that they were better organized.

SG: They sure were. I never saw so much money. When I told you that they got a hotel, they had people fly in from all over at their own expense to stay there and work the campaign, and they were so programmed. It was unbelievable. You looked at these people, you saw how well-dressed they were. You understood what was behind them, and then you looked at the Democrats. What was it that Will Rogers said?

JP: “I am not a member of an organized party, I am a Democrat.”

SG: That is right and it made me think of Will Rogers. I mean, they were not as well-dressed, they were not organized.  

I was already getting nervous. The time that I knew it was over, it was not the second vote of the U.S. Supreme Court, it was the first vote, when they stopped the counting. I thought all this work, all this effort, all this time, all for nothing.

JP: Did you feel at that point that the U.S. Supreme Court had denied the voters their rights as citizens?

SG: I felt that every vote did not count.  Only some votes counted.

Excerpts compiled by Brenda Withington

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