For 19,000 voters, error meant ballot didn't count
By ADAM C. SMITH and THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 10, 2000
PALM BEACH -- Did 19,000 Palm Beach County residents get confused by a strange ballot, or were they merely inept voters?
The presidency of the United States could turn on that question. And it may have to be answered in court.
If an ongoing recount of Florida's presidential votes doesn't swing the election to Al Gore, the legal challenges will center on Palm Beach County's unusual presidential ballot, which many voters say confused them into improper or unintended votes.
The ballot, designed by Palm Beach's supervisor of elections, a Democrat, included the candidates' names on either side of punch holes, and many voters say they mistakenly voted for Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan when they thought they were voting for Gore.
Whether or not the ballot is to blame, Palm Beach wound up with startling results.
Buchanan received 3,407 votes in the Democratic-leaning county, more than one in five of all the Florida votes he received. What's more, 19,120 voters voted for two or more presidential candidates and had their votes nullified.
For reasons unclear to most elections officials, voters routinely vote for too many candidates in a given race and effectively throw their vote away. Some voting systems, including Hernando County's, won't accept excessive votes in any race, but the punch cards used through much of Florida do.
"It happens all the time," said Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning.
Look around Florida at the number of people whose presidential votes were nullified because they voted for at least two candidates Tuesday: 3,641 voters in Hillsborough; 4,261 in Pinellas; 2,141 in Pasco; 52 in Citrus; more than 7,925 in Broward.
But 19,120 in Palm Beach?
"That's high," said Ernest Hawkins, registrar of voters in Sacramento, Calif., and president of the National Association of County Recorders, Election Officials and Clerks.
By any measure, Palm Beach's over-votes stand out.
Votes thrown out because two or more presidential holes were punched amounted to 4.14 percent of all the presidential votes cast in Palm Beach. In Broward County, only 1.3 percent were tossed for over-voting, in Pinellas just more than 1 percent, and in Hillsborough just less than 1 percent. Only the presidential vote is nullified, not the rest of the ballot.
Nobody knows how many Palm Beach voters who picked Buchanan or had their presidential ballots nullified actually supported Al Gore, but the Gore campaign claims most of them.
A St. Petersburg Times analysis of the 30 precincts with the most ballots nullified for over-voting showed 29 of them overwhelmingly supported Gore. In 21 of them, Gore won at least 80 percent of the vote.
Palm Beach voters didn't make the same mistake anywhere near as often on other races on the ballot. Elections officials tossed out 0.14 percent of the education commissioner votes, 0.13 percent of the insurance commissioner votes and 0.82 percent of the U.S. Senate votes.
"That is an incredible statistical anomaly," said Democratic Rep. Peter Deutsch of Fort Lauderdale.
Republicans have dismissed the claims of confusion, noting that the past presidential election, with a lower turnout, saw nearly 15,000 votes invalidated in the county. As about 2,500 people protesting the vote gathered at the county government center in West Palm Beach, Deutsch insisted the ballots, though reviewed in advance by both parties, were illegal on two points: The punch holes were on the wrong side, and the candidates were listed in the wrong order, with Buchanan improperly listed higher than Gore.
On the Today show Thursday, Buchanan said he doubted many of the votes he received in Palm Beach County were actually intended for him and questioned the double votes there.
"If the two candidates they pushed were Buchanan and Gore, almost certainly those are Al Gore's votes," Buchanan said.
Voters have filed lawsuits in Palm Beach County over the election, and Gore campaign officials said they will support those efforts.
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writers Jeffrey S. Solochek, Bill Varian and Wayne Washington and Times wire services contributed to this report.
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From the Times election desk
From the AP