931 votes hinged on a chad in bay area
[Times files: James Borchuck 2001]
Richard Walker, Pinellas County elections operations manager, was in charge of more than 4,600 punch-card voting machines. In Pinellas County, 649 voters who chose either Bush or Gore were disenfranchised. Now the county is moving toward touch screen machines.
By CHUCK MURPHY
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 12, 2001
Though the percentages of ballots considered undervotes or overvotes in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties were small, a disturbing number of them -- 931 -- should have counted in the election.
Punch card technology and voter ignorance led to a troubling number of invalidated ballots.
Pinellas County canvassers said they would have counted undervoted ballots as valid if they contained at least one corner detached from a presidential chad. There were 649 Pinellas County voters who chose either Bush or Gore and were disenfranchised by machinery or stylus under that standard.
Expand that pool of ballots to include dimpled chad and potentially valid overvotes, and the number of Pinellas residents whose votes were not counted grows to 1,060. Drop that standard to only those ballots containing two or more chad corners punched, and the number is reduced to 65.
Hillsborough and Pasco, which used the same punch card technology as Pinellas, had smaller numbers of Gore and Bush votes that may have been counted had they been reviewed by canvassing boards -- 211 and 39, respectively, using the standards those counties would have used in evaluating undervotes.
Because those large numbers of discarded valid votes were split fairly closely among the candidates, those mistakes would not have been enough to alter the outcome of the election. But the lost votes are troubling to members of both parties.
In Hillsborough, two of the precincts with the largest number of ballots rendered invalid could not be more different.
One, in Tampa's Belmont Heights neighborhood, is 89 percent black and 85 percent Democratic. Another, in Sun City Center, is 98 percent white and 50 percent Republican.
In Belmont Heights, about 12 percent of all votes didn't count -- making it the worst precinct in the county. In Sun City Center, about 3 percent of ballots cast were tossed because voters cast two votes for president or didn't cast a valid vote at all. That still made it the ninth worst precinct in the county.
Darryl Paulson, a government professor at the University of South Florida who plans to teach a course on the 2000 presidential election, said a couple of factors likely played into those Hillsborough precincts. For the black voters, they turned out in large numbers in response to get-out-the-vote drives, but were unfamiliar with the process.
"They went into the voting booth," Paulson said, "and had no idea of what to expect."
For the white, mostly elderly, voters of Sun City Center, they were likely confounded by the technology of the Votomatic machines.
"I don't know a polite way to say this," Paulson said. "When you are talking about voters in their 70s and 80s, it is much more difficult to perform the simple act of voting -- because it is not so simple for them."
For those voters, there is hope. New machines will be installed before the next election. While Hillsborough and Pinellas appear headed toward installing touch screen machines, as Pasco has done, it is clear from the experience in Hernando and Citrus with optical scan machines that anything is better than the Votomatic.
In Hernando, six votes that should have been counted were not in the 2000 election, according to the ballot review. That number is out of 231 ballots reviewed in Hernando after they were rejected by machine.
In Citrus, 23 votes were left behind out of 217 ballots that were rejected as either undervoted or overvoted.
"I think it's much easier for the voter. That's the most important thing," Citrus Elections Supervisor Susan Gill said of the optical scanning system her county uses.
Those systems prevent most undervotes because they are sensitive enough to pick up on most marks made within the oval that voters are supposed to darken.
Optical scanners also prevent overvotes by notifying the voter immediately of the problem. The overvotes that made it through were submitted only because voters chose not to correct their ballots, Gill said.
Of the 163 Citrus undervotes, 40 were among the 10,254 absentee ballots. Those are ballots cast from the voter's home or at the elections office on or before Election Day. Of the 54 overvotes in Citrus, 23 were found among the absentee ballots. The remainder were distributed among the polling places, with many having no overvotes and no precinct registering more than four.
But while improved technology will undoubtedly reduce the number of uncounted votes in the Tampa Bay area and statewide, voter education will clearly be just as important.
A precinct in Clearwater's North Greenwood neighborhood had more ballots tossed out in the presidential race than any other Pinellas precinct.
Robin Green's precinct was one of them. Green, a nursing instructor who lives in North Greenwood, read the instructions on her ballot, "Vote for ONE Group" for president. She thought the wording was strange, but she saw nobody to ask and a line waiting to vote.
So Green punched a hole for the first of her "group," Al Gore. Then she punched a hole that she thought was for Gore's running mate, Joe Lieberman. She finished and dropped her ballot in the box.
Green thought her vote counted until she talked to her mother, a regular voter, a few days later. Then she was sure she had gotten it wrong. The reference to "group" refers to electors, the people who will actually go and cast votes for Gore or Bush in the electoral college. The language, "vote for group", was required by law, but was nonetheless confusing for thousands of Florida voters.
"I think it was set up to fail," Green said earlier this year.
Only 28 of Pinellas' 345 regular precincts are at least 40 percent black. Those precincts account for 5.2 percent of votes from those who went to the polls. But they had disproportionate problems: 15.2 percent of the presidential votes that didn't count came from those precincts. (Absentee ballots aren't included in this calculation.)
"Wow," said County Commissioner Ken Welch, a St. Petersburg resident who is one of two black county commissioners. "That's significant. . . . Those numbers are just very disappointing."
-- Compiled from reports by staff writers Jim Ross, Alex Leary, Jeffrey S. Solochek, Ryan Davis, David Karp, John Martin and Lisa Greene.
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