The St. Petersburg Times and several other media organizations analyzed 175,010 Florida ballots that were cast but not counted during last year's presidential election.
Without overvotes Gore was doomed
Thousands of votes were rejected because of extra marks emphasizing the voters' real choice.
By STEVE BOUSQUET and THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writers
© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 12, 2001
More than 2,100 Florida voters who wanted Al Gore to become president tried to make doubly sure of their choice. So did more than 1,300 voters who backed George W. Bush.
Extra marks, lost votes
George W. Bush and Al Gore both lost votes when people put extra marks on their ballots. These two presidential ballots were among 3,491 that counting machines rejected as overvotes. If they had been reviewed in a manual recount, most Florida canvassing boards would have counted them. In the ballot above, the voter expresses an intent for Bush but the vote is negated because the machine picked up the filled oval for Gore. Neither candidate got the vote. For the same reason, the ballot at bottom is a lost vote for Gore. The problem could have been avoided if these voters had used an eraser or asked for a new ballot.
They marked a ballot for their candidate and then wrote in his name for president, too. Or they circled the name, or tried to scratch out a mistake, or otherwise made a second mark to emphasize their choice.
Those votes could have turned the election for Gore. But the extra emphasis ensured they wouldn't count.
Instead, the ballots were labeled as overvotes, or ballots which machines read as having marks for more than one candidate and were never recounted by hand. Had election officials looked at them, the intent of these voters would have been abundantly clear.
The ballots were unearthed in an analysis of 113,820 overvotes for the St. Petersburg Times and other media companies.
Why weren't they counted last year?
Most elections supervisors interpreted state law to say that a vote would be invalidated if a voter marked a ballot more than once in a contest. That meant if a voter punched out a chad for a candidate and then wrote in the candidate's name or circled the name on the ballot, for example, it would be labeled an overvote and rejected -- never to be seen again, even in a manual recount. At least 705 voters filled out the oval or punched the chad for Gore, then also wrote in his name as a write-in selection. At least 515 did the same for Bush. None of those votes counted, even though every voter's intent was obvious.
Florida's new election law mandates new voting equipment that should dramatically reduce overvotes. The law also ensures that votes like the 3,500 tossed out last year would be reviewed in a manual recount.
For Gore, the changes came too late.
Gore could have picked up 2,182 votes last November on overvotes where voter intent is clear, and Bush would have gained 1,309 votes, the media companies' analysis shows. That difference would have enabled Gore to defeat Bush in any statewide recount that included overvotes, regardless of what statewide standard for counting undervotes was used.
If the recount would have continued on Dec. 9, Gore would not have picked up enough overvotes to overtake Bush. That's because only nine counties were planning to count overvotes, and differing standards were being used to count undervotes.
But the first hand count of all ballots that were set aside as overvotes in the 2000 presidential election reveals:
n Gore's effort was badly damaged by another type of overvote, those in which voters chose two separate candidates. This often happened in counties where the names of presidential candidates were spread over two columns on a ballot or across two pages.
There were about 65,000 ballots with these types of two-candidate overvotes. The review found 40,371 ballots marked for Gore and for a second candidate. Another 15,803 had Bush and a second candidate's name.
- The two most common types of overvotes were for Gore and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, and for Gore and Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne. Those 20,610 overvotes represent more than 18 percent of the total number of uncountable overvotes, and many presumably were intended for Gore.
- Bush also apparently lost votes to overvotes where no voter intent could be determined. Some 4,994 ballots, for example, were marked for both Bush and Buchanan. Many presumably were meant for Bush.
- Eight of every 10 overvotes where no voter intent could be determined are traced to the now-outlawed punch card voting machines.
- Optical scan machines that counted votes in a central location caused big problems because, unlike more advanced optical scan systems, they didn't catch mistakes at the polling place.
Of those overvotes where the voter's intent could be determined, Bush and Gore would have received their largest number of additional votes from ballots cast on optical scan machines with a central counting system. Their fewest number of additional votes would have come from punch card ballots, which are the ones that became the focal point of the election controversy.
This overvote phenomenon was not well understood throughout the state in the chaotic weeks following the 2000 election. But the problem was immediately apparent in Palm Beach County.
That county's infamous "butterfly" ballot featured Gore's name on a left-hand page and Buchanan's name on a facing right-hand page. The punch card holes for each candidate ran down the middle.
Even on Election Day, Democrats were hearing from voters who left the polls and then were uncertain whether they had voted for Gore as they had wanted, or punched the hole for Buchanan by mistake.
Overall, 5,352 Palm Beach County voters punched holes for both Gore and Pat Buchanan. Another 2,864 voters punched holes for both Gore and Socialist David McReynolds, whose name also was across from Gore's.
While Gore suffered the most damage from those overvotes in Palm Beach, Bush did not escape unharmed: 1,676 Palm Beach County voters punched holes for both Bush and Buchanan.
Imperfect machines, the design of the ballots and pure voter error all contributed to the problems with overvotes across the state. Some voters may have been confused by the ballot design, and some first-time voters appear not to have known that making more than one choice in a race would void their ballots.
But the voter's intent was clear in about 3 of every 100 overvoted ballots.
Among those ballots, Gore could have gained 515 votes in Lake County, 264 votes in Escambia County and 250 votes in Duval County.
Bush could have gained 343 votes in Lake County, 166 votes in Charlotte County and 143 votes in Manatee County.
Most overvotes were cases such as the Palm Beach County voters who chose Gore and Buchanan on the "butterfly" ballot, or Duval County voters who chose Gore and a minor-party candidate whose name appeared on the second page of the ballot. Those votes were routinely rejected.
But overvotes came in many forms, and county elections supervisors now know they can determine the intent of the voter in some cases.
Florida has a new, broader definition of a "clear indication of a voter's choice," to be applied the next time a manual recount takes place.
Canvassers, for example, would have to count all those presidential ballots where voters chose a candidate then wrote the same candidate's name as a write-in.
But the debate continues over whether those write-in overvotes should have been counted in the totals. At an election-law public workshop in Tampa last week, Democrats and Republicans clashed over that question, just as they did in the dizzying days that followed the closest presidential vote in Florida history.
"Something doesn't compute," said Sharon Becker of Lake Wales, chairwoman of the Polk County Democratic Party. "People were obviously confused, because it didn't say, "Write in the name of your candidate unless you have voted for someone else.' It said, "Write in your candidate's name' and a lot of people did that. They followed the directions to the letter. They filled in the oval for whoever and then wrote that same person's name on the line."
Said Pasco County Elections Supervisor Kurt Browning: "When I found this out, I was, like, give me a break. . . . Those should be counted. What was the voter's intent?"
The ballot instructions above or next to the list of presidential and vice presidential candidates also said "Vote for Group" or "Vote for One Group."
Dee Williams, a Republican activist from Tampa's Sun City Center, said Florida is going too far to divine a voter's thoughts. She referred to a new rule that anticipates 22 separate what-ifs, and in each case the vote would be counted.
"If the instructions are clear, there shouldn't have to be all these if's, trying to figure out what the voter intended," Williams said. "I just feel that any attempt to alter the ballot should spoil that ballot, and if they don't ask for another one, then they don't have a vote. I don't care who it is."
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