Checks reveal thousands of tainted votes
By ADAM SMITH and SYDNEY P. FREEDBERG
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 14, 2000
Florida's presidential election tally includes thousands of votes that apparently shouldn't have counted.
Election supervisors throughout the state are turning up tainted votes as they match the number of signatures on precinct books to the number of ballots actually cast on Nov. 7.
Duval County, where some 27,000 presidential ballots were not counted because they contained no vote or too many votes, also appeared to have the highest discrepancy rate among the votes that did count. Nearly 1 percent of the Duval ballots -- 2,659 of 291,626 -- were punched by people who in many cases were not registered to vote there.
"We're number one in overvotes," said Richard Carlsberg, Duval's assistant election supervisor, "so we might as well be number one in this category too."
Like Carlsberg, many elections supervisors said Wednesday that most of the questionable ballots were cast by voters who were registered at one time but had been purged from voter rolls because they moved. Others voted legally, but their signatures weren't picked up during the audit. And poll workers simply forgot to make some of them sign the books.
Others produced outdated voter ID cards at polling places, but deluged elections clerks mistakenly let them vote.
"When the clerks didn't find their names on the rolls, they would try to call (the central election office), but they couldn't get through," Carlsberg said. "We didn't have enough phone lines, and our system was overwhelmed. Phone lines actually went totally belly up for a period of an hour or more. It was chaos."
It's impossible to determine which of the presidential candidates the invalid votes favored. But they clearly influenced the totals of both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore in the razor-thin race.
How many of the counted votes were bad? Darrell Smith, director of operations for the Hillsborough supervisor's office, said their "criteria" anticipates a discrepancy between signatures and ballots cast of one-half of 1 percent in a general election.
Statewide, that would amount to 30,000.
"If you go through the whole of Florida and you get one or two here and one or two there, it makes a difference in a close race," said Lee Davis, assistant supervisor of tiny Jefferson County, where clerks had one more ballot than signatures for people.
She said she suspects a poll worker simply forgot to have one person sign the precinct book.
Besides non-residents, ballots also were cast by felons who had lost their right to vote and people who were ineligible because they registered after the Oct. 10 registration cutoff.
In Flagler County, poll workers didn't check the birthdate of an unregistered person with the same name as the real voter, resulting in an ineligible ballot, said election supervisor Peggy Border.
In Duval and Leon Counties, elections officials discovered two people who voted four times.
Leon assistant elections supervisor Janet Olin said the double voter cast an absentee ballot and voted at the precinct. She declined to give details but said the information would be forwarded to prosecutors.
Criminal investigations into possible voter fraud, a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison, also are under way in Escambia, Alachua, Miami-Dade, Hillsborough and Pinellas.
Although some of the problems were caused by simple clerical or accounting errors, they also highlight the fine line elections workers walk. They want to make it as easy as possible for people to vote, but they are also supposed to ensure only valid votes are cast.
"You get both criticisms," said Jane Carroll, supervisor of elections in Broward County, which completed the biggest manual recount in Florida and still is working on reconciliation of voter lists.
"You get people who say, "Oh, people were turned away from the polls who should have been allowed to vote,' and then you get the other criticism that those poll workers let people vote who shouldn't have been allowed to vote."
In Hillsborough, where elections clerks found about 500 fewer signatures than ballots cast, they are still poring over the books of any precinct with an unusually high discrepancy rate.
"It takes a little detective work," added assistant supervisor Fae Mansfield in Collier County, where officials are trying to determine why they had 21 more ballots than signatures in one precinct. "That's the worst one we have. But we almost always get them to balance to zero in the end."
Orange County had 282,559 ballots cast but only 282,277 signatures. Elections officials there said they don't know the reasons for the disparity. Nor do they know in Levy County, where they counted 13,490 ballots and 13,465 voter signatures.
"Twenty five off -- that's pretty darn close," said deputy supervisor Tammy Jones, who added the discrepancy could have been caused during the audit, not the vote. "There's a hundred reasons why it never comes back exactly right. Nothing is perfect."
Some smaller counties, such as Gilchrist and Hamilton, said they found no problems, and other supervisors were unconcerned about mismatches in ballot and signature totals.
"We have a difference of seven" between ballots and signatures, but "I don't know if it's seven more or seven less," said assistant election supervisor Barbara Weaver of Highlands County, where 50 unpunched ballots turned up missing after the election.
In Sarasota, assistant elections supervisor Robert Riker said 1,200 to 1,300 people who voted on election day have subsequently been removed from voter rolls. Virtually all of them, Riker said, were legal voters on Nov. 7 but since then moved or died or asked to be taken off the voter list.
Riker said the Sarasota County elections office has found only "five or six" people who improperly voted in November, all voters who had once been properly registered in the county but subsequently moved without updating their registration.
About one third of Florida's 67 counties, including Pinellas, Hernando and Volusia, said they had not yet finished their reconciliations of voters lists.
Several counties said the presidential mess in Florida highlights the need to reform the system.
"It was a nightmare day," said Duval's Carlsberg. "In 2002, we're going to have a whole new voting system."
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