In Florida, they're still counting

British friends intending a work or pleasure visit here have been plying me with questions: would it be better to come before Easter, or after? That, I tell them, is irrelevant. There is no impetus towards the Easter holidays as there is in Britain, and even church schools treat Good Friday and Easter Monday as normal school days. Instead, there is "spring break", a peculiarly American ritual: college students, to take one example, pour into favoured places such as Fort Lauderdale with the specific aims of getting drunk and having sex. Practically everybody here, myself included, has already had their "spring break" - and when Easter comes, it will be as unmentionable as Christmas on orders of the PC police.

Taking care to avoid all students, I went to my customary haunt in Florida last week. While Britain has had the wettest winter on record, south Florida has been experiencing perhaps its driest; stringent water restrictions, in fact, went into force last week. From the beginning of January until mid-March, only 1.57 inches of rain fell - 5.5 inches below normal.

But as my plane taxied in, the heavens opened. In the following three days, more than seven inches of rain came down in tropical sheets. But even that was not enough, and so intense was the lashing that many reservoirs overflowed into rivers. Garden companies are going out of business; police forces are appointing secret water cops to hunt down furtive middle-of-the-night hosers of gardens.

Boy George descended on the state, too, being met with hugs from Kid Brother Jeb, the Florida governor who made his brother's presidency possible. Before I left Washington, a Bushie friend berated me for hours about how "the media" would soon be saying, after their own ballot recounts, that Al Gore had really won Florida and thus the presidency - and how that would be totally wrong because "the media" are entirely communist, hate the Bushes, etc, etc.

I discovered that there are three major recounts of the ballots going on, mainly under the state's admirable "sunshine" freedom-of-information laws: one conducted by the ultra-straight National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago; another carried out by the accounting firm of B D O Seidman; and the third by the right-wing pressure group Judicial Watch (which is already privately claiming that Boy George actually won by a margin bigger than the 898 votes hitherto known). The Palm Beach Post has already analysed 19,125 "overvotes" on the confusing, two-page "butterfly" ballot papers in Palm Beach County - and concluded that, if voters' true intents had counted, Gore would probably have won by more than 8,000.

Although the general consensus in Florida is "Bush is now the president - get a life", the results of the recounts are causing Republicans much anxiety. Jeb is up for re-election next year, and the Democrats are considering various heavyweight candidates to oppose him - one of them Pete Peterson, a former ambassador to Vietnam who spent more than six years as a POW there. It remains a supreme irony of the way the presidency was snatched for Boy George: that Jeb, widely thought to possess a few more brain cells than Boy George, could yet become the first politically irrevocable casualty of his brother's ascendancy.

Enter Katherine Harris, aka Cruella De Vil, the head of Florida's elections as well as state co-chairwoman of the Bush 2000 campaign. Less than four months ago, she disregarded recounting and anointed Boy George as winner, insisting that the state's ramshackle hodgepodge of punch-card and other voting systems had worked just fine. With that peculiar American ability for people to reinvent themselves out of adversity, Cruella is now enjoying a new lease of life, and there is talk of her even running for the Senate next year. I discovered she was ubiquitous in Florida, trying to unveil a $200m electoral reform package that the Republicans are hoping will erase memories of the mess they made last year.

Having insisted that punch cards and optical scanning machines were perfectly acceptable voting methods to elect Boy George, Harris now declares that "the days of the punch-card ballot are over in Florida for ever". She proposes that the state spends $49m to lease new optical scanning machines for next year's elections. By 2004, she wants a $150m electronic, computerised ballot system with instructions available in different languages, and so on.

Now her package to reform the system that she said was in good order when she put Boy George in the White House has to be approved by Republicans in the state congress - and they are unlikely to pass it. But it will have shown that the Republicans tried; that is the point. "Do I think she is being sincere?" a senior state Democrat said last week. "No, I do not." Even the Florida Senate Ethics and Elections Committee has been recommending that, next time around, the state adopts a uniform ballot paper instead of the scores of hokily different ones used last year - a commonsense proposal which, given that quintessential American thirst for local autonomy, might well nevertheless not be adopted.

Kid Brother Jeb, meanwhile, has been diverting attention by pointing out that Florida has 14 daily flights from Britain - more than any other state - thus placing the state most at risk from Britain's leprous foot-and-mouth outbreak. If anybody is planning to disregard my advice and visit Florida over Easter, I must warn them not to expect to go on the famed safari tour at Busch Gardens near Tampa: all who have been in infectious Britain within the previous five days are strictly banned. Happy spring break, as it will surely be known in the UK before long.

Andrew Stephen was appointed US Editor of the New Statesman in 2001, having been its Washington correspondent and weekly columnist since 1998. He is a regular contributor to BBC news programs and to The Sunday Times Magazine. He has also written for a variety of US newspapers including The New York Times Op-Ed pages. He came to the US in 1989 to be Washington Bureau Chief of The Observer and in 1992 was made Foreign Correspondent of the Year by the American Overseas Press Club for his coverage.