- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 6, 2004

Two Belgian lawmakers, Bart Tommelein, 42, of the Flemish Liberal Party, and Geert Lambert, 37, of the Progressive Regionalist Party, were among 60 European election observers invited by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. They spent Tuesday, Election Day, in the Orlando, Fla., area, where they got kicked out of one polling site after another. Here is a blow-by-blow account of their encounter with democracy, American-style:

Tuesday, 6:29 a.m.: After a hearty breakfast of eggs, hash browns, bacon and coffee in the hotel restaurant, Bart and Geert pile into the PT Cruiser. The driver, Joy Haslacker, has removed the “Kerry for President” bumper sticker in deference to the observers’ pledge of neutrality. They’re off to observe the opening of a polling station chosen at random.

6:52 a.m.: After a couple of wrong turns, the observers, accompanied by a Belgian newspaperman, arrive at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church, where more than two dozen people are waiting to cast ballots.

The two Belgians have been preparing for more than a week. They tear off across the parking lot, identification badges from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) bouncing on their chests.

But they are politely turned away by the polling-site official, because their names are not a master list of approved observers.

Surprised, but equally polite, the Belgian congressmen withdraw to a shaded corner of the parking lot to decide whether to appeal or leave.

A poll watcher has a suggestion.

“We don’t need you here,” he yells to the startled Belgians. “Why don’t you go to Haiti?”

7:40 a.m.: At the nearby St. Mark’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, in a working-class, predominantly black neighborhood, the Belgian congressmen are again informed that they are not on the list.

But it takes awhile to confirm that information, and Bart and Geert quickly assess the polling station as they wait to be thrown out.

Working from an official checklist, they mark their forms to indicate that the line is moving quickly and that the voting machines look secure and functional.

Bart attempts to explain to the site manager that they are Belgian parliamentarians, and the OSCE was invited by the State Department to observe the elections.

They receive a shrug in response and are sent to the spot where news cameras and party volunteers are also corralled.

8:10 a.m.: The Belgians march up to Fire Station 31, a polling site in Orlando’s affluent Bay Hill area. Residents Tiger Woods and Shaquille O’Neal aren’t standing on line, but four dozen of their mostly white, well-dressed neighbors have turned out on their way to work.

Geert and Bart are not on this precinct’s list of approved observers, which by now they have learned is composed solely of volunteers appointed by the various candidates and political parties.

They are aghast and try to explain they are neutral, impartial, international election observers. The site coordinator is sympathetic and disappears to find a supervisor.

While she’s on the cell phone, a young woman with an aggressive demeanor begins to grill Bart and Geert about their mission.

She demands to see “official pieces of ID” that will support the names on the OSCE tags around their necks. She writes their names on a big blue clipboard and informs them that they are not allowed to be anywhere near the polling area.

“Who are you?” asks the amused Geert.

“You know I don’t have to give that out,” she snaps, whipping out a cell phone and trying to stare them down.

“An attempt to intimidate,” Bart says loudly as he enters the incident on his own clipboard. He lights a Marlboro and scans the line for voters, many of whom are also enjoying the morning sunshine.

The Belgians are disturbed by the lack of privacy at the polling site: Volunteers and others waiting to vote can easily read the filled-out ballots as they are fed into the tabulating machine. It is a criticism they will make at more than half the polling places they visit.

“Belgians would never stand for that, but I guess no one here minds,” muses Geert.

9:10 a.m.: Outside Orlando’s Salem Lutheran Church, a woman with three bored young sons in tow says she’s glad the monitors have arrived. “The more eyes the better,” she says. “My vote had better count this time.”

10:05 a.m.: The Belgians return to Orange County’s elections office to meet Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles. Mr. Cowles, who didn’t mention during earlier visits that the observers would not be allowed inside the polling places, informs them that the law cannot be bent.

Bart and Geert give interviews to the local NPR radio and NBC television affiliates and then return grimly to their task.

“I think we shall propose a law that international observers should be allowed,” says Geert.

The two sit for a while, digesting their options in front of a riotous landscape of political placards.

12:06 p.m.: McDonald’s. Geert chooses the Filet O’ Fish as Bart tears into a Quarter Pounder. They agree the fries are better here than at the Belgian branches of the fast-food chain.

1:21 p.m.: “You’re not on my list,” Precinct 62 supervisor Betty West tells the Belgians, who attempt their speech about the neutrality of the OSCE mission and how they were invited by Mr. Powell, the secretary of state.

“He should have put you on this list,” Ms. West says, gently shooing them to the door of the church that serves as a polling place in working-class Casselberry.

The observers nod, check off their forms and leave.

“Don’t Americans mind casting votes in churches?” Geert asks. No one appears to have given it much thought. “We also use schools a lot,” offers Ms. Haslacker, the local guide and driver. “Whatever’s convenient.”

2:30 p.m.: Back to the plush Westin Grand Bohemian, for a few hours of rest and to fax their early poll reports back to the OSCE office in Washington.

The Belgian newspaperman is replaced by a three-man crew from Belgium’s public television network.

4:54 p.m.: Bart and Geert approach a school polling place in racially and politically mixed East Orlando, oblivious to the outrage of firefighter Chuck Stroup, who has just cast a ballot for President Bush.

“Who let them into this country, let alone the county?” says Mr. Stroup. “I have a difficult time with someone coming into this country to judge us. We can run elections better than anyone, let alone Marxists. They have no legal or moral authority to be here.”

Informed by a reporter that the OSCE was invited by the Bush administration, Mr. Stroup says, “Just because Bush did it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

When the Belgians pass by again, on their way to Ms. Haslacker’s waiting car, Mr. Stroup and Bush volunteer Jose Baez try to explain their views.

Geert and Bart quickly walk away.

6:20 p.m.: Standard OSCE procedure calls for the observers to watch the polls close, to see that anyone on line by 7 p.m. is, in fact, allowed to vote and that no one tampers with the tabulating machine.

Turnout here is light, and the Belgians cheerfully wait on the grass outside the Eatonville City Hall until the balloting officially concludes.

7:22 p.m.: Poll supervisor Dave Morton invites them in, at last — all the way inside — to observe the tabulation on ballots, which are optically scanned and recorded on paper.

The Belgians are joined by Finnish Sen. Kimmo Kiljunen and Denmark’s Carina Christensen, who have been on a similar odyssey in Jacksonville and parts of nearby Georgia. The Europeans are weary, but the mood is light.

As a poll volunteer collapses a dozen portable voting stations, the group gathers eagerly around the portable voting tabulator, which holds the nearly 600 ballots cast over 12 hours.

Mr. Morton proudly shows off the machine, “reliable for 16 years,” and answers their many questions. A handful of partisan poll observers and lawyers, who have been vigilant since 7 a.m., seem to relax as they all wait for the tally: In tiny Eatonville, it’s 533 votes for Sen. John Kerry and 57 for Mr. Bush.

The Europeans try not to react openly to the mini-landslide as the Democratic and Republican lawyers phone the results in to their headquarters. The Americans swap electoral gossip.

8:34 p.m.: The four observers agree it’s time for a beer and some food, and they stop at a branch of the Cheesecake Factory for Sam Adams beer and appetizers. The two teams swap stories and observations as the food arrives and agree that the Florida elections did not appear to be as badly run as they feared. The traffic, however, is worse.

They are on their way to watch the election results with their local coordinator, Democratic political consultant Dick Batchelor, who will spend the evening analyzing the Florida contests for local television and radio stations.

But the observers are clearly tired, and they’ve got to be on an early flight to Washington Wednesday morning, to meet up with OSCE monitors fresh from Ohio, Minnesota, North Carolina and the Washington suburbs.

“We have some concerns, but what we were able to see today was pretty good,” said Bart, lighting up another Marlboro.

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