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Mystery Ballots Break Pattern

-- eve (, November 12, 2000


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-- eve (, November 12, 2000.

Mystery ballots break pattern

More votes tallied for senator than president

By David Jackson and Michael J. Berens

Tribune Staff Writers

November 12, 2000

In Palm Beach County, 435,638 people voted for a U.S. Senate candidate on Tuesday, but in an apparent anomaly, 3,352 fewer punched their ballots with a presidential choice.

This seeming contradictionBthat so many people would skip voting for the highest office in the landBunderscores the reason Democrats are pushing for a hand recount of ballots in Palm Beach and three other Florida counties as they challenge Gov. George W. Bush's razor-thin lead in this contested battleground for the presidency.

Palm Beach was one of 19 Florida counties that had fewer votes cast for the presidency than for the U.S. Senate, according to a Tribune analysis of voting records from the Florida secretary of state's office.

In their search for partially perforated ballots and miscast votes, Democratic Party lawyers were scouring the Sunshine State, from the quiet precincts of Palm Beach to the hardscrabble counties along the Georgia border.

With Bush's lead at 327 votes in an unofficial survey by The Associated Press, virtually every Florida ballot has taken on significance. In counties across the state, Democratic Party attorneys and activists are pushing for ballot recounts and gathering evidence for voter lawsuits.

In Broward County, which Vice President Al Gore carried easily, Democratic lawyers are asking to inspect an estimated 6,000 ballots that were marked with votes for lesser offices but not the presidency.

County Democratic Chairman Mitch Ceasar said many residents probably intended to vote for a presidential candidate but failed to punch their ballots completely. These attempted votes are visible to the eye although they did not register on tabulating machines, and there may be enough of them to recast the election outcome and obviate the need for a protracted court battle, Ceasar said in an interview.

In Miami, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume was collecting complaints from angry voters who said they were harassed by police and turned away from the polls. Many of the accusations have come from Haitian- Americans, and the NAACP plans to turn over the complaints to the U.S. Justice Department and request a recount because of alleged civil rights violations, Florida NAACP President Adora Obi Nweze said.

In Palm Beach County, elderly residents of the Century Village housing complex filed into a Democratic lawyer's office to sign affidavits saying they were confused by the county's two-page, "butterfly" ballot. These voters, many of them loyal Jewish Democrats originally from New York and New Jersey, say they may have mistakenly voted twice or selected Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan for president instead of Gore.

Palm Beach County officials on Saturday did a manual recount of ballots from four precincts, while in Volusia County, officials planned to begin their own hand recount on Sunday.

A judge has issued an injunction stopping the Palm Beach County vote count from being certified pending a scheduled hearing Tuesday on a civil suit filed there by voters alleging their ballots were misleading. The Bush campaign also has asked a federal judge to block the hand recounts.

Counting and recounting ballots may take days. Adding to the uncertainty is an unknown number of absentee and overseas ballots that will not be completely counted until Friday.

From rural Gadsden County on the Georgia border, Elections Chairman Edward Dixon sketched a portrait of a presidential election gone awry and showed how easily a vote can be miscounted.

In this poor and predominantly African-American swath of farms and factories, voters mark a double-sided ballot by blacking out ovals with a pencil, like students taking a multiple-choice test. The ballots are then fed through an electronic scanner, which counts the pencil marks.

But more than 2,000 voters spoiled their ballots by mismarking them, Dixon said. Some crossed out the names of candidates they didn't likeB rendering the entire ballot unreadable to the electronic scanner. Others tried to erase or alter marks they made.

When Gadsden County officials went through the ballots by hand, they found 170 additional votes for Gore and 17 for Bush, Dixon said.

Florida law allows election officials to inspect any disputed ballot to "determine the voter's intent." If inspectors see a mismarked oval or half-punched hole, they can award the vote to one candidate, the law says.

Three counties considered critical to GoreBPalm Beach, Volusia and BrowardBhave agreed to inspect some or all of their ballots by hand. County elections commissioners in Miami-Dade also will consider Democratic requests for a manual recount.

Ballots in the few counties that showed more votes for the U.S. Senate race than for the presidential contenders may be questionable, because Floridians as a whole were more likely to vote for a presidential contender than a Senate candidate, history shows. Overall, nearly 6 million Florida residents voted for a presidential candidate, about 112,000 more than voted for a senator.

In Duval County, where the disparity was largest, 9,417 people voted for a Senate candidate but not a presidential choice, the Tribune analysis of Florida voting records shows.

In Palm Beach County, 3,352 people voted for a Senate candidate but not a presidential choice. In Gadsden County there were 1,054 people who voted in the Senate race but not the presidential contest.

In Palm Beach, the Democrats also focused on two other aspects of the election imbroglio: a large block of discarded ballots and possibly questionable votes for Buchanan.

Some 19,100 Palm Beach presidential votes were discarded because two choices were punched. That is more than 4 percent of the county's total vote, an unusually large portion. Democratic activists say the double counting was due to the ballot's confusing layout, with presidential candidates staggered on both sides of the "butterfly" page layout.

On the page for state senators, by contrast, candidates' names were listed vertically, and there were only about 3,100 double-punched votes, less than 1 percent of the total.

"This 'overvoting' is of great concern," said Florida state Sen. Ron Klein, a Democrat who served as a Gore team witness for the Palm Beach County recount.

In addition, Buchanan won 3,407 votes in heavily Democratic precincts of Palm Beach County, one-fifth of his Florida total and more than he won in any other Florida county. Buchanan himself said those votes probably weren't intended for him. "The ballot is confusing," he said.

"Many of us believe we made a mistake and voted for Buchanan," said Lillian Papuzza, 71, a poll inspector at the Century Village housing development in Palm Beach County.

"I saw people come in out of their sick beds, people in wheelchairs, people who could hardly walk," Papuzza said. "It was incredible, the effort they put in to vote. But for elderly people, the ballot was confusing. We're upset."

The ballot was not just confusing, it was illegal, said Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state who is spearheading the Gore campaign's recount drive.

Democratic National Committee officials have begun a fundraising drive to support a lawsuit challenging the vote count in Palm Beach County. Unlike the Gore campaign, the party can raise unlimited funds for such a legal effort without facing federal campaign finance restrictions.

A party-backed lawsuit may be filed in state court as early as next week, Democratic officials said, although they acknowledge that courts have been reluctant to overturn elections without proof of intentional fraud.

For now, Palm Beach County has agreed to recount all of its votes by machine and some of its votes by hand in response to a request by the state Democratic Party. The new hand recount on Saturday covered at least 1 percent of the popular vote and four precincts, about 4,000 ballots.

In other parts of the state, some poll workers said they turned away voters because they were unable to verify basic registration information. These poll workers said they were put on hold for more than an hour trying to contact county offices and resolve discrepancies with addresses and registration cards.

"We are still collecting accounts of other irregularities, voter intimidation and other oddities in other parts of the state," said William Daley, Gore's national campaign chairman. "If substantiated and appropriate, they, too, will become part of legal actions."

Charges of election tampering take on an added life and momentum in South Florida, with its history of vote fraud, fractious electorate and activist immigrant population. In a Miami church, Jesse Jackson stoked angry crowds by hinting that Republicans had manipulated Tuesday's vote to deny Democrats the right to cast ballots.

"Somebody's been tampering with the process," Jackson told a spirited throng at New Birth Baptist Church.

But by week's end, many of the tampering claims had melted under scrutiny, leaving the tedious business of reading partially perforated ballots to determine the will of the people and the fate of the candidates.

Tribune staff writers Steve Mills in Ft. Lauderdale and William Gaines in Tallahassee, Fla., contributed to this report.

-- (Chicago@Tribune.article), November 12, 2000.

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