Confusion, inexperience led 2,500 voters to err
Many ballot mistakes were made by infrequent voters in Democratic-leaning districts, especially ones with low education levels and high poverty.
By BILL ADAIR
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 12, 2001
JACKSONVILLE -- To find the heart of Florida's ballot problems, visit the gritty precincts on the west side of Jacksonville. They had the state's highest concentration of voter mistakes.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
During this past summers hearings on election reform, Duval County residents studied the ballots arrangement in a June meeting at the Flower Designs by Zella florist shop.
Here, in the rundown neighborhoods beside Interstate 295, more than 2,500 people mistakenly punched their ballot for more than one presidential candidate. Many of them seemed to want Al Gore, but none of the votes counted because people also punched a second candidate.
There were 458 ballots marked for both Gore and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, apparently because the two candidates had the same position on consecutive ballot pages. Another 121 ballots were marked for both Gore and Libertarian Harry Browne, apparently because voters confused Browne with the local congresswoman, Rep. Corrine Brown. There were even 19 voters who inexplicably chose Bush and Gore.
These precincts in Duval County -- like some in Gadsden County west of Tallahassee and Palm Beach County in South Florida -- bear the distinction of having the most invalidated ballots in last year's presidential election.
The mistakes were most severe in areas like the Jacksonville precincts that had a lot of black voters, tremendous poverty and low education levels. Civil rights groups and partisan Democrats have complained about disenfranchised voters in Florida for the past year.
But here's the problem: there's no chance the votes would have ever counted. On nearly all these ballots, it's not possible to figure out which candidate the voters truly wanted. Simply put, double marks didn't count.
A St. Petersburg Times analysis of 175,010 rejected ballots throughout Florida shows that even under the most generous recount scenario, relatively few new votes would have been found in these black, Democratic-leaning neighborhoods.
Among the findings:
- Race mattered. Of the 25 precincts statewide with the most rejected ballots, 21 are predominantly black. All of the worst 25 Florida precincts were more than 50 percent Democratic. But those troubled precincts were not the trove of votes Democrats would have hoped. Even under the most generous recount scenario, the review found just 101 additional votes for Gore, out of more than 6,000 rejected ballots.
- Education mattered, too. Gadsden County, which had the highest countywide percentage of rejected ballots in Florida, has the lowest school ratings in the state. Again, though, there was no great jackpot for Gore, even with broad recount standards. It was impossible to determine the voter's intent for nearly 2,000 of Gadsden's 2,073 rejected ballots.
- A staggering number of ballots were rejected for various reasons in Duval County -- nearly 27,000, accounting for 9.2 percent of all ballots cast. They were heavily concentrated in Democratic precincts.
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But if the recount had proceeded under the standard Duval officials planned to use, Bush would have picked up more than twice as many votes as Gore. That's because most of the rejected ballots in Democratic precincts were invalid double votes and it was impossible to figure out which candidate the voter wanted.
"NO LOITERING" say the signs at the boarded-up shopping centers in what are known as the No. 10 precincts, a collection of neighborhoods on the west side of Jacksonville. Outside the front door of one of the few open stores, an elderly woman begs for spare change.
Jacksonville had a vibrant economy in the last decade, but these neighborhoods -- a few miles from the city's insurance company skyscrapers and the stadium that houses the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars -- are still waiting to reap the economic dividends. At noon on a weekday, it's not unusual to see a resident sitting in his front yard drinking beer.
These precincts, which have always voted strongly Democratic, were targeted by the Gore campaign in an extraordinary effort to get black voters to the polls. Democratic organizers used labor unions and church groups to mobilize thousands of people who had never voted before.
But many of the new voters were unaccustomed to the quirks of punch cards -- which in Duval County listed the presidential candidates on two pages -- and the strange language of voting instructions ("PUNCH OUT BALLOT CARD ONLY WITH PUNCHING STYLUS ATTACHED TO VOTOMATIC . . .").
"The instructions were very confusing," said Mike Langton, the Northeast Florida coordinator for Gore.
To simplify the process for new voters, Democratic organizers suggested an easy way to vote for Gore and running mate Joe Lieberman:
Punch the second hole.
Cedric Smith, a 19-year-old grocery store employee who lives in the No. 10 precincts, said he was told "mash the second hole."
The effort to mobilize black voters was a tremendous success. Gore won the No. 10 precincts with about 80 percent of the vote.
But many voters followed the instructions too literally.
They punched for Gore/Lieberman on the first page and then turned the page and again punched the second hole -- a vote for Pat Buchanan. That created an overvote, which meant their ballot was disqualified.
Some black residents in No. 10 believe they were victims of a deliberate effort by white officials to disenfranchise black voters.
"The election was kind of corrupted," Smith said. He said he believes elections officials, who were predominantly white, threw out thousands of ballots in black neighborhoods so George W. Bush would win.
But other black voters in the area said they don't believe white officials deliberately tried to change the results.
"The bottom line is that it was just a confusing ballot," said Robert Cummings, a retired truck driver. "I don't think it was racism."
Patterns of problems
Which counties had the ingredients for ballot problems?
They were big and small, urban and rural. Some were rich, some were poor.
The most important factor was the type of balloting. The counties with the highest rates of rejected ballots used punch cards or had optical scan systems that were centralized, which meant mistakes by voters were not caught and corrected at the precincts.
Rural Gadsden County had the highest rate of rejected ballots -- 12.3 percent. Another rural county, Glades, was second highest, followed by Duval, a large urban county that includes Jacksonville.
The counties with the fewest problems also represent a cross-section of the state. They include larger counties such as Brevard and Volusia and small ones such as Citrus and Flagler. The common denominator for a good performance: They had optical scan systems that allowed voters to correct mistakes before they left the polling place.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
The problems in Florida did not just exist with the equipment, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, said at a hearing in June of the U.S. House of Representatives Democratic Caucus Special Committee on Election Reform. Committee members included, from left, Reps. Maxine Waters, Brown, David Price and Alcee Hastings. Many Democratic officials criticized elections officials for the number of ballots rejected for black voters.
For county-level results, there is a slight correlation with race and education. Counties with larger black populations or lower school ratings had a slightly higher rate of balloting problems.
But the patterns are strongest at the neighborhood level.
Of the 25 precincts with the most rejected ballots, 21 were more than 50 percent black. Gadsden's majority-black precincts had an average of 15 percent rejected ballots, compared with 10 percent for its white precincts.
Statewide, the average number of rejected ballots in majority-black precincts was more than twice as high as in majority-white precincts.
It's difficult to match education with local election results because school boundaries do not match voting precinct lines. But the pattern can be seen clearly in the No. 10 precincts in Jacksonville.
Robert Cummings, a retired truck driver from Duval County said, The bottom line is that it was just a confusing ballot. I dont think it was racism.
At Paxon Middle School, which serves those precincts, more than half the students do not meet the state's minimum reading standards.
It appears that age was not a factor in the balloting problems. There is no statewide correlation between ballot mistakes and age, although some of the Palm Beach precincts with high rates of rejected ballots had a large number of retirees.
But there was a strong connection with political party. Democrats made far more mistakes than Republicans. Party registration numbers show the top 25 precincts for balloting mistakes were all more than 50 percent Democratic.
In Pasco County, for example, the rate of rejected ballots was 2.7 percent -- roughly the same as the statewide average. But those ballots were more concentrated in Democratic precincts.
Wayne Hogan, a Jacksonville attorney and Democratic activist, said the root of the problem was the confusing ballot.
"It was not a matter of irresponsibility on the part of the voters," he said. "They were misdirected by the ballots."
Big gains in small places
The U.S. Civil Rights Commission and many Democratic officials have sharply criticized state and local elections officials because so many black voters had their ballots rejected.
"The problems in Florida did not just exist with the equipment," U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, said at a hearing in June.
But the analysis by the Times and other news organizations shows that, even if there had been a statewide recount using the broadest definition of voter intent, some 150,000 of the state's 175,010 ballots reviewed by the news organizations would still have gone uncounted.
Counties such as Duval that had large numbers of uncounted ballots in black neighborhoods would have gained relatively few votes. In fact, under the recount plans that Duval would have used, Gore would have gained 178 votes countywide, but Bush would have picked up 439.
Gore would have picked up 21 of his votes in the No. 10 precincts, but those gains would have been erased by Bush's larger gains in Republican areas.
Statewide, if the recount had continued as planned by the Florida Supreme Court, the candidates would have picked up many votes in relatively small counties.
Bush would have gained 484 in Collier, 384 in Lake and 223 in Marion. Gore would have gained 326 in Collier and 535 in Lake.
Why the disparity?
Generally, the smaller counties planned to use broader rules for the recount. Lake County, for example, planned to count ballots where voters mistakenly filled in two bubbles on the optical-scan ballots but then corrected the mistake and wrote in the candidate's name. But most counties did not plan to count overvotes.
The reviewed ballots also reveal some interesting patterns about the kinds of mistakes voters made and how people were confused by ballot design.
In addition to the 458 voters in the No. 10 precincts who double-voted for Gore and Buchanan, 261 people voted for Gore and Natural Law candidate John Hagelin. The reason for that is unclear, but it might be because Hagelin was the first name on the second page.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Preston H. Haskell, a developer, led a task force that studied voting problems in Jacksonville. It found that the election was simply mismanaged. Haskell said that confusion and some voters lack of knowledge arent completely to blame.
Another odd combination that showed the strong Democratic leanings of the No. 10 precincts: 81 people voted for all candidates except Bush.
A task force studied the Jacksonville problems and found there was not a deliberate effort to disenfranchise black voters. The task force said the election was simply mismanaged and the county relied on outdated voting machines.
Preston Haskell, the developer who headed the task force, said many factors led to the large number of rejected ballots in Jacksonville.
"There was huge confusion, lack of knowledge about the ballot and inability to read," said Haskell. "But you can't blame it all on the people. The system let them down."
Times researcher Constance Humburg and staff writer Ryan Davis contributed to this report.
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