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10 reasons why Al Gore lost Florida

By THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 2000


Just days before the Nov. 7 election, 60-year-old Thomas Hauck and 78-year-old Charles Kane were laboring in front of a computer at the local Republican headquarters in Stuart.

Their party had launched a sophisticated statewide effort to get out the absentee vote, but now it was botched: A printing company had failed to put the required voter identification numbers on thousands of absentee ballot request forms that were mailed to voters.

So Hauck and Kane got busy, aided by a Republican supervisor of elections who let them remove the forms from her office.

Kane, a retired CIA employee who chaired the Bush-Cheney campaign in Martin County, read the numbers from the party's database. Hauck, the local GOP treasurer and a 20-year veteran of local campaigns, filled in the blanks on the request forms.

Knowing it was a tight election, the two men worked fast. But they never imagined how pivotal their effort could be.

A now-famous lawsuit said they violated state law, and it sought to have 10,000 absentee ballots thrown out -- a measure deemed too harsh by the Florida Supreme Court.

But lost in noise of the post-election train wreck were two important numbers. Hauck and Kane managed to alter ballot requests for 766 voters in Republican households -- and 673 of them ended up casting ballots that might otherwise have gone unused.

The sophisticated Republican absentee effort was just one of many factors, large and small, that propelled George W. Bush to a 537-vote victory in Florida, giving him the presidency.

Here are nine more that played a role in this historic presidential selection:

Elian Gonzalez

In the spring, Al Gore tried to score points with the Cuban-American community when he broke with the Clinton administration over the issue of Elian Gonzalez, the 6-year-old Miami shipwreck survivor who wound up at the center of an international custody dispute. The vice president said the boy should be given permanent residency status in the U.S., which even his allies recognized as pandering. Gore's position later evolved when he said the whole dispute belonged in family court. In the end, many Cuban-Americans were committed to getting back at the Clinton administration by voting against Gore. The vice president got 70,000 fewer votes in Miami-Dade than Clinton did in 1996.

Alex Penelas

Gore might have picked up a few votes with the help of Alex Penelas, the popular mayor of Miami-Dade and the most prominent Hispanic Democrat in Florida. But the timing was bad. Penelas was busy with his re-election campaign. Sensing strong undercurrents in the Cuban community from the Elian Gonzalez episode, he literally ran from the Democratic ticket. In October, he missed an important Gore event in Miami, choosing instead to go on a 12-day trade mission to Spain.

Ralph Nader

There is little debate that Ralph Nader's candidacy, which captured 90,000 left-leaning votes in Florida, was the biggest single factor in Gore's loss. But Gore might have hurt his cause in a state teaming with committed environmentalists. He refused to take a position on one of the top environmental issues in Florida: a proposed reliever airport that would be sandwiched between two national parks in South Florida. Nader came out solidly against the project, as have others in the Clinton administration.

Confusing ballots

Who says a minor party candidate can't make a difference? The plethora of presidential candidates -- there were 10 -- led supervisors in two Democratic strongholds to resort to ill-advised ballot styles. In Palm Beach County, supervisor Theresa LePore resorted to the now-notorious butterfly ballot, a well-intentioned move she thought would make it easier for seniors to read. Instead, it spawned mass confusion, leading many to mistakenly vote for Pat Buchanan, whose name was situated almost directly across from Gore's. Even Buchanan conceded that many of the 3,407 votes he got in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County probably belonged to Gore. Meanwhile, Duval County voters were confused by a two-page presidential ballot that inadvertently instructed them to mark a vote on each page. Many did just that, resulting in 22,000 disqualified or "overvoted" ballots. More than 40 percent of them were from precincts that went heavily for Gore. In her 23 years in the elections business, Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said she has never seen a presidential ballot so crowded. "They just came out of the woodwork this year," she said.

Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Supreme Court's unanimous Nov. 21 ruling struck a high-minded note, allowing hand recounts to proceed in selected counties on the principle that "the will of the people is the paramount consideration." But it was short on practicality. The court left little time -- five days -- for such a mammoth undertaking to be executed. The deadline caused Miami-Dade to cease its recount effort, citing a lack of time.

Palm Beach recounts

No one was happy with the Palm Beach Canvassing Board as it painstakingly recounted 462,000 ballots by hand. Republicans said the standard they were using to gauge the intent of each voter was too liberal. Democrats said it was too strict. The board adopted a moderate standard that counted the much-maligned "dimpled chad" as a vote, but only when the rest of the ballot contained dimples. "In all candor, determining intent from a ballot card is impossible," board chairman Charles Burton finally said in frustration. "To be consistent in this election has been a difficult task to say the least." The standard worked most heavily against Gore, who had expected to net as many as 400 new votes from Palm Beach County. He got fewer than 200, and they came in too late to be counted. That's because the board decided to take Thanksgiving off. Three days later, it missed the deadline by less than two hours.

Katherine Harris

One of the more memorable moments of the post-election drama came shortly after 7 p.m. on Nov. 26, the deadline set by the Florida Supreme Court for recount results. Palm Beach missed the 5 p.m. deadline, but was hoping its Herculean effort would not be for naught. Instead, Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified the results without the new Palm Beach totals. It was as if the air had been sucked out of the Emergency Operations Center, where the recount unfolded over the better part of two weeks. "Unbelievable," muttered Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore. Harris's certification was a turning point for Gore, giving Bush's lead an air of credibility that the vice president never managed to overcome.

'Activist' judges

In a struggle punctuated by digs at "activist" judges, Leon County Circuit Judges Terry P. Lewis and Nikki Clark managed to stay above the fray. Both were appointed by Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles. But, between the two of them, they issued rulings that worked against Gore.

Judge N. Sanders Sauls

As the Dec. 12 deadline for submitting electors to the Electoral College fast approached, Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls ate up valuable time for the Gore camp. The matter of whether the recount should be allowed to continue remained before him from Nov. 28 to Dec. 4 -- six days that Gore supporters now would like to have back. Where other judges in election-related matters seemed to expedite their trials, Sauls worked more slowly. He ordered ballots from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties sent to his court over a weekend, then presided over a tedious two-day trial as Gore's lawyers squirmed. After his ruling in favor of Bush, the state Supreme Court would not take up the matter for another three days.

By Tuesday night, when the U.S. Supreme Court resolve the matter once and for all, time had run out.

- Times staff writers David Adams and Craig Pittman contributed to this report.

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