A new exhibit at a South Florida museum helps explain what happened in 2000 and gives people another shot at the butterfly ballot.
WEST PALM BEACH - Six-year-olds Brian Davin and Michael Franco ran their eyes down the ballot of names: George Bush and Al Gore on the left, Pat Buchanan on the right.
They studied the holes between the list, clasped their fists together around a stylus and punched - right where they wanted. Unlike so many voters before them who stepped up to the butterfly ballot - a relic of the bungled 2000 election - the boys successfully (and quickly) endorsed Bush, the candidate of their choice.
But was it really that easy?
A new display at the South Florida Science Museum helps explain Palm Beach's infamous role in the presidential election three years ago by letting children and adults try out the now-retired punchcard ballot on an authentic Votomatic III.
The confusing ballot and the many dimpled, hanging and pregnant chads it produced led to five weeks of recounts and legal wrangling. A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately awarded Bush the state by 537 votes, allowing him to secure the White House in an election that sorely embarrassed Palm Beach County and the state.
"Many people just walk by it and shake their heads and you can see the flood of memories come back," said Jim Rollings, the museum's executive director. "But the out-of-towners come up and they really want to look it over to see if the ballot is as confusing as it was made out to be."
Just for those who easily forget, a sign next to the four-legged stand where sample paper ballots can be inserted explains: "Many voters claimed that they were confused by the instructions, by the design and by the physical motion needed to punch through the voting cards."
Much of the chaos came from voters' claims that they mistakenly voted for Buchanan, who was listed on the right of the ballot, by punching a hole that also aligned with the word Democratic, which introduced Al Gore and Joe Lieberman on the left.
Five-year-old Paul Picard avoided all those problems by picking the person at the bottom of list, Natural Law Party candidate John Hagelin.
"But it was so confusing," Paul's mother, Mary Picard of Lake Worth, lamented. "I remember having to look at it twice."
Now that the state has replaced the ballots with a computerized form (which caused their own problems in South Florida during the 2002 primary), the butterfly ballots and Votomatic machines were left to be sold as historical reminders and collectors' items on Internet auctions.
The Smithsonian has a Votomatic, along with a butterfly ballot, protest signs, T-shirts and a magnifying glass used by a judge who reviewed the ballots - but hasn't yet put the objects on display.
A Palm Beach County machine also went to the American Presidential Museum in Branson, Mo., where visitors can examine the machine and the chads hanging from an old butterfly ballot. In Philadelphia, the National Constitution Center has a similar machine and ballot from Miami-Dade County behind glass.
But the Florida display is the only one that allows visitors to try out the ballot.
Rollings said he brought the Votomatic III out of storage because it fit so well with the summer's gallery of mind-teasers, which is otherwise filled with kid-friendly, interactive puzzles and exhibits explaining scientific mysteries.
Billed as the "county's best-known, unintended brainteaser," the Votomatic III display helps defend voters' confusion with a sign titled, "What was going on in the voter's brain?"
While one part of a person's brain reads the ballot, the sign explains, another had to figure out the spatial relationship between the holes and the names, while a third part handles the hand-eye coordination needed to punch the proper hole. If you tried to vote for Bush, it's clear to punch the top hole, Rollings said. "But if you were voting for other candidates, you kind of had a mental maze to work through."
Visitors can use their sample ballot to try and correct any mistakes they might have made in 2000 and keep it as a souvenir, Rollings said.