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SPECIAL REPORT / Decision 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

One Ballot, a Lot of Confusion

Election: Some claim redesigned Palm Beach County punch card caused Gore backers to mistakenly vote for Buchanan.

November 09, 2000|MARK FINEMAN and MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Theresa LePore was up all night, sifting the numbers precinct by precinct well after sunrise Wednesday. She was searching for anomalies, aides said, and preparing to defend the new ballot she had designed to make voting easier for the county's large elderly population.

But nothing could have prepared LePore, Palm Beach County's supervisor of elections, for the firestorm that would overtake this county seat.

Supporters of Vice President Al Gore gathered outside with signs urging motorists to "Honk for Re-Vote." Others took to the airwaves with tales of anger and confusion in the polling booth.

A lawsuit was filed on behalf of three voters who say they were baffled by the new ballot and accidentally punched the box for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Gore. They are seeking to overturn the county's election results.

By midday, LePore's glass-walled ground floor office at the Palm Beach County Government Center became ground zero in the battle for the U.S. presidency.

At issue is the presidency, one heavily Democratic county along Florida's Gold Coast and 3,407 votes.

That was the tally in this heavily Democratic county for Buchanan, whose name was opposite and slightly above that of Al Gore on LePore's redesigned two-page ballot.

LePore, a 19-year civil servant and an elected Democrat, had expanded the one-page presidential ballot to accommodate a larger type font that elderly voters could read more easily. "I was trying to do a good thing," she later said, "that I will not do again."

But, within hours of the polls opening Tuesday, complaints trickled in from Gore voters who feared they accidentally voted for Buchanan. Local talk radio shows picked it up and, in the words of a local Republican official, "the feeding frenzy" was on.

"People came out of the ballot booth hysterical," said Rep. Robert Wexler, the Democrat who won reelection in Palm Beach County. "They were screaming and crying when they realized what they had done.

"There's no way [Buchanan] would get a turnout like that in Palm Beach County."

During the initial ballot count, election officials in the county disqualified more than 19,000 ballots that were double punched with two presidential candidates. Gore supporters say that is further evidence that the new ballot confused many voters.

Wexler's Republican counterpart in the district, Rep. Mark Foley, showed up at the courthouse with a predictably different perspective. He called the missed-punch-hole argument "a stretch of the imagination" and asserted that Buchanan easily could have polled 3,407 votes in a county that gave Foley's own ultraconservative, Reform Party congressional opponent 2,651 votes on Tuesday.

"I saw them going to the polls with Confederate flags flying on their trucks," said Foley, who said Democrats were grasping at straws.

Buchanan's tally was outdone here by Ralph Nader's 5,564 votes and dwarfed by Gore's 268,945 and Bush's 152,846.

Regina Porten, a lifelong Democrat, said she's living with the fear she missed voting for Gore, by a single millimeter on a punch card.

Phyllis Rosenberg is upset too. She said that as she stood in a church and started to mark her ballot, she was so confused about which hole to punch for Gore that she asked an election official for help.

"I'll tell you the truth," said Rosenberg, 72, of Delray Beach, a Gore supporter. "I don't know if I voted for the person that I was supposed to vote for, and this upsets me terribly."

Although Buchanan's share of the vote here dwarfed that in every other Florida county, this Democratic stronghold does have a history of supporting the Reform Party. In 1996, Ross Perot drew 30,744 votes here. Four years earlier, he polled more than twice that.

Still, Buchanan's campaign said that election officials and voters in Palm Beach County have reason to be suspicious about his take there. Given Buchanan's average vote in Florida's other counties, election officials have told the Buchanan campaign that as many as 3,000 votes in Palm Beach may be "irregular."

"Something may be off. Something may be wrong. Something may not be correct, but that's up to the election officials to determine," Buchanan spokesman KB Forbes said.

Overseas Absentee Ballots Still Out

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris said no state winner would be officially declared for at least 10 days, until all of several thousand absentee ballots from Americans overseas are received.

The still-incomplete recount produced a shift toward Gore on Wednesday, reducing Bush's lead to less than 1,000 votes. In some of the state's largest counties, the change was minimal. In Miami-Dade County, the recount showed Gore picking up 26 votes over Bush.

In Broward County, which went almost 3 to 1 for Gore, the vice president picked up 43 more votes, and Bush 44, for a net gain for Bush of one vote.

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