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    Latest ballot dispute? Storage

    Palm Beach County's notorious "butterfly" ballots and other records take up 5,000 cubic feet.

    By Associated Press,
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 30, 2003

    Another dispute is brewing over Florida's infamous "butterfly" ballots and hanging chad - whether more than 6-million votes cast in the nation's most disputed presidential contest should be destroyed or preserved for their historical significance.

    The ballot debacle delayed the 2000 election's outcome for 36 days and sparked a bitter fight between Republicans and Democrats before the U.S. Supreme Court stopped a statewide recount, giving George W. Bush the White House with 537 more votes than Al Gore in Florida.

    More than two years later, the state's elections supervisors say they need the storage space and want to get rid of the ballots.

    "Other than saying, "Hey, here's the pile of ballots from 2000,' there isn't much use to them," said Kurt Browning, elections supervisor in Pasco County and a former president of the statewide association of supervisors. "As that paper gets older, the paper gets brittle and dry. And after being handled so many times, a new recount is out of the question."

    The Florida Department of State, which oversees elections, extended the usual 22-month preservation deadline until July 1 to give lawmakers time to decide what to do. But with less than a week to go in the Legislature's regular session, lawmakers have yet to discuss the fate of the ballots.

    The president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, said some of the ballots should be preserved.

    "Some should be saved for historical purposes," he said. "I don't think the right thing to do would be to destroy them all."

    While state officials and elections supervisors try to decide, one South Florida lawyer has gone to court to save the ballots.

    "I don't understand the anxiousness to destroy these things," said Gary Farmer Jr., a lawyer in Broward County. "It's not like we're going to put these out on eBay or anything. We just want them preserved."

    A Palm Beach County judge already has issued a court order preventing the destruction of the butterfly ballots. The ballot was supposed to make voting easier for the county's elderly residents, with large type that spread the names of the 10 presidential candidates over two facing pages. Many voters said they found the ballot confusing, and some Gore supporters said they inadvertently voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.

    Farmer also sued Miami-Dade County in early April, attempting to block the destruction of the ballots. A hearing is set for May 16.

    He said he may sue the state in Tallahassee to encompass all of Florida's 67 elections supervisors, but said the ballots will make no difference in the election's outcome. "That ship has sailed."

    During the 2000 presidential recount, Farmer was involved in lawsuits by Democratic voters that sought to exclude almost 10,000 disputed absentee ballots in Martin County and to try to prevent the certification of the Palm Beach results.

    Even after the July 1 deadline passes, elections supervisors must ask permission to destroy their records, so the final decision on what to do with the ballots will be left to Glenda Hood, whom Bush named secretary of state in February.

    Hood's spokeswoman, Jenny Nash, said Hood would make a decision about the ballots within a few weeks. Nash said the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science approached the state about the ballots, but under current rules the elections supervisors don't have the option of giving them away.

    State officials estimate the 6-million-plus ballots and related election records take up about 5,000 cubic feet, enough to fill more than 450 four-drawer file cabinets.

    Theresa LePore, the elections supervisor responsible for Palm Beach's butterfly ballot, said her 2000 election records are stacked on three 5- by 5-foot pallets, each of them 6 feet high. She had joked that a bonfire would be best way to rid herself of the ballots, but regretted it. "I caught a lot of grief for it."

    Julian Pleasants, a University of Florida history professor, said the destruction of all the ballots would leave a hole in the historical record. He said he hoped a systematic sampling of the ballots from each county would be preserved for future analysis.

    "Looking at it from a historian's point of view, it would be a big mistake," Pleasants said. "I'm sure a lot of people would just like to forget about it. But this is the only presidential election decided by the Supreme Court. If you don't have a ballot, how do you understand the difference between a hanging chad and a three-corner chad, or between a pregnant chad and a dimpled chad?"

    A consortium of the Associated Press and seven other news media organizations examined 175,000 ballots that did not make it into state-certified totals. They indicated that the partial recounts Gore pursued in 2000 would still have left Bush clinging to the narrow lead he had after Election Day. Had Gore pursued a full statewide recount he might have picked up enough votes to surpass Bush by an even slimmer margin, the media consortium found.


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    From the Times state desk