Voters statewide say they had poll troubles
By THOMAS C. TOBIN and LEONORA LaPETER
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000
WEST PALM BEACH -- To her horror, Carolyn Hamilton realized the mistake almost immediately. But it was too late.
She had just dropped her ballot in the box Tuesday at her polling place when she began to compare notes with her husband, telling him she had proudly punched the No. 2 spot for president.
A longtime Democrat, Hamilton said Wednesday she assumed she was voting for Al Gore. "But my husband said, "You just voted for Pat Buchanan.' "
Deeply troubled by the error, her heart sank early Wednesday as the presidential election turned into a mammoth and historic political crisis that might ultimately be traced to problematic ballots in Palm Beach County.
Other reports surfaced Wednesday of a variety of voting problems in the mother of all battleground states, from allegedly unopened ballot boxes in South Florida to a roadblock by the Florida Highway Patrol that prevented black voters in the Panhandle from getting to the polls. Scores of voters were said to be turned away for not complying with a new requirement that they show a photo ID. Crime-scene tape surrounded the Volusia County elections office.
As serious as these allegations seem, elections experts say successfully challenging the outcome of an election is no easy task.
Courts look at two standards: Voting fraud where there is a conscious intent to change the results of an election, and gross negligence on the part of elections officials to the point that there is no reasonable way to confirm the true intent of voters, said John French, the former general counsel for the state Democratic Party.
"Both of those are very, very difficult standards," French said.
Said Richard McFarlain, former general counsel to the state Republican Party, "It takes a lot for a judge to find that an election was illegal."
In Tuesday's election, the clearest and most visible problem arose in Palm Beach County. Thousands of voters -- perhaps enough to tip the election in Gore's favor -- reportedly were confused by the positioning of presidential candidates atop the ballot.
Election officials said that positioning was the result of bigger type used to help elderly voters.
The candidates' names were situated on either side of the line of holes that voters punch to make their selection. To many, it appeared that the second hole from the top was the one for Gore.
Wrong. It was Buchanan's slot.
The Reform Party candidate got 3,407 votes in Palm Beach County, which to Gore supporters sounded excessive. By comparison, Pinellas County, which cast 406,555 ballots to Palm Beach's 461,988, gave Buchanan 1,012 votes.
Particularly suspicious to many Palm Beach locals were the 950 Buchanan votes from Century Village, a giant West Palm Beach retirement complex filled with life-long Jewish Democrats.
How, many wondered, could voters in Florida's most heavily Democratic county have accounted for 21 percent of the Buchanan vote in Florida?
That outcome is "inconceivable" to anyone who knows Palm Beach, said U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton. Wexler spoke with reporters outside the county's elections office, part of a daylong flurry of barely controlled pandemonium at the courthouse as the nation began learning of Florida's mixed record when it comes to accurately counting votes.
At one point, a mob of reporters, camera crews, lawyers, politicians and protesters calling for a recount swarmed the courthouse atrium for a news conference by Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore, a Palm Beach County Democrat who has worked in the elections office since 1971 and won the top job in 1996. She became the target of scorn by outraged Gore supporters.
LePore never appeared, disappointing offices of fellow county employees who watched history unfold from indoor balconies up to five stories high.
By the end of the day, three Palm Beach residents had filed a lawsuit, seeking a new election in Palm Beach County because of the confusing ballot. Another puzzling development surfaced as well: an extraordinarily high number of voters, some 19,000, punched their ballots for two presidential candidates. That means those votes -- about 4 percent of the county's total -- were voided and never counted.
Republicans gathered at the courthouse were unconvinced, saying they suspected the outpouring of reports came after Gore's fortunes began to sag.
"I can't conceive that the election's going to get thrown out because because someone can't read and follow an arrow," said Reeve Bright, a lawyer for the Palm Beach County Republican Party who was asked by the Bush campaign to monitor the crisis locally.
In Volusia, the process turned surreal.
Sheriff's deputies slapped yellow crime scene tape around the elections office for 13 hours after a series of confusing events.
Among other things, Volusia's election results were delayed by a computer glitch that subtracted 16,000 votes from Gore's tally at one point. Then, as the elections office closed at 3:30 a.m., someone saw an election employee and her brother leave with two black satchels. The satchels turned out to contain only a bag of clothes and a sample ballot, but elections officials acknowledged they were fielding calls from registered voters who didn't turn up on rolls.
Later Wednesday, an elderly Volusia poll worker arrived carrying a sack of ballots he had forgotten to return Tuesday night.
At least two Bethune-Cookman College students with proper identification and voter registration cards were turned away in Volusia County and many other students reported complaints about voting irregularities. The problems seemed so widespread that the school planned a broadcast Tuesday evening asking students to report problems to the school, said Nancy Long, assistant professor of English at the historically black college in Daytona Beach.
NBC News reported that Osceola County voting cards didn't fit properly in the slots of the voting machine, yielding more than 300 votes for the Libertarian Party candidate. About 100 people in the county are registered Libertarian.
In Broward County, there was a report of an elderly poll worker at a retirement home who sent the ballot box back to the main office without the ballots and then left. Elections officials had to retrieve the ballots and add them into the count around 11 p.m. Tuesday evening.
Republicans charged that non-citizens and green-card holders were allowed to vote in Broward.
In Miami-Dade County, Democrats and Republicans were getting calls from voters concerned they had inserted the cards incorrectly and selected Bush over Gore and vice versa. In Hillsborough County, there were charges of intimidation of black voters.
Three people, including a poll worker, said they saw a deputy at two precincts stop black men and women outside polling places, check their identification and then tell them they couldn't vote because they were convicted felons, said Andrea Pringle, a spokeswoman for the NAACP National Voter Fund in Washington D.C.
Pringle said that in one case the man was not a convicted felon. One woman's voting rights had been restored in 1984.
And in Precinct 129, a predominantly black polling place in St. Petersburg, Deborah Curry said she did not get the chance to vote, even though she came to the polling place with her voter registration card. She waited for two hours, until after the polls closed, and estimated that 20 people like her left in frustration without having voted.
"Shame! Shame! Shame!," lawyer Henry E. Nobles wrote in a letter to Pinellas elections officials. He said dozens of predominantly minority voters stood in line for more than an hour about 6 p.m. Tuesday, in a hot, inadequately staffed polling place in Precinct 114 in St. Petersburg. Many left without voting, Nobles said.
But it wasn't only Pinellas Democrats who groused.
Debora Mosley of Tarpon Springs said she planned to vote for Bush. She went to her regular polling place at St. Timothy's Church (Precinct 704) around 5 p.m. Tuesday. She didn't have her voter registration card, but she did have a photo ID. The clerk said her name was not on the list, so she was told to fill out a form with her ID info and the clerk would call the Pinellas County Supervisor of elections to see if her name was on the master list.
In the meantime, Mosley said she went home, got her voter registration card and returned. The clerk tried the supervisor of elections number repeatedly, but it was busy and the polls closed before they could get through. Mosley said five or six others had the same problem.
Voting irregularities have long been a problem in Florida.
In 1988, supporters of Buddy MacKay, then a candidate for U.S. Senate against Connie Mack, charged that the design of a ballot led voters to skip the Mack-MacKay race.
-- Times staff writers Sydney P. Freedberg, Curtis Krueger, Robert Farley and Diane Rado contributed to this report, which contains information from Times wire services.
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