WASHINGTON — One Florida voter penned a plaintive plea on a presidential ballot: "I forgot my glasses and cannot see this. Please put Bush down for my vote."
That Bay County ballot wasn't counted last year. Nor was a Jackson County ballot on which someone had circled Al Gore's name, aimed huge arrows at it and wrote Gore in the "write-in" slot. That voter's mistake: not darkening the oval beside Gore's name.
Floridians wrongly drew stars, circles and Xs on ballots. They used pens instead of pencils, or red ink instead of blue. They tried to erase errors, or fix them with tape or staples. They tried to vote for pro golfer Tiger Woods and Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez. Many tried in vain--and in error--to vote for two, three or even all 10 presidential candidates.
Bizarre ballots, creaky machines, cranky officials and vague laws all contributed to Florida's nightmare election. But a detailed review of 175,010 uncounted ballots by The Times and other media organizations shows how many voters simply messed up.
Researchers from the National Opinion Research Center reviewed 61,190 "undervotes"--ballots rejected by machines or canvassing boards because no clear choice for president was evident. They also inspected 113,820 "overvotes"--ballots tossed aside because more than one presidential candidate appeared to be marked.
A surprising number of people--28,340, or nearly half the undervotes--chose no one for president. A few explained why on the ballot by writing, "None of the above," or even, "Terrible choice!"
But the vast majority of the uncounted ballots suggest people tried to vote. Most, in fact, tried several times.
A Franklin County voter, for example, marked nine of the 10 ovals for president on an optical scan ballot, leaving only the Bush selection blank. Was this voter trying to choose anyone but Bush? Or trying to omit everyone but Bush?
Either way, he or she was not alone: 3,616 uncounted Florida ballots had nine filled ovals and a blank for Bush. And 725 others showed nine filled ovals and a blank for Gore.
Law Provided Little Guidance
Florida law last year required county officials to consider a voter's "intent" when reviewing a disputed ballot but gave little guidance about how to do so. The result: Counties disagreed wildly or even changed rules in mid-count.
Take "double-bubble" votes. Optical-scan tabulating machines automatically rejected paper ballots on which a voter properly darkened an oval by a candidate's name but then filled in a second bubble and wrote in the same name on the ballot in the space for write-in candidates.
Although officials in 34 counties subsequently decided the voter's intent was clear in such cases and counted such votes, officials in at least seven counties did not. The result: 1,344 double-bubble ballots were discarded, with Gore the net loser of as many as 288 valid votes.
Escambia County, a Republican stronghold near the Alabama border, went both ways. County machines rejected double-bubble ballots cast in the precincts, costing Gore as many as 67 votes. But county officials later decided to count the same type of marks as valid on absentee ballots, many from military personnel, who tended to favor Bush.
To ease voting lines and save the cost of extra ballots--at 23 cents apiece--Escambia County officials turned off a counting machine feature that spits out spoiled ballots so voters can correct their mistakes. As a result, 3,680 ballots that were marked more than once were accepted but not counted. However, county officials hand-copied absentee ballots that were torn or not properly marked so that they could be counted. Such actions were legal but show how arbitrary decisions affected the race for the White House.
County canvassing boards differed in other key ways.
Some inspected ballots that were rejected by machines. Others inspected only clearly damaged ballots. Some counted absentee ballots without postmarks. Others rejected them. At least two counties put white stickers over obvious mistakes. But as many as two dozen boards declined to examine any of the uncounted ballots.
Florida's 67 counties used four voting systems last year.
Twenty-four counties, including the five most populous, used punch card ballots. Most had tiny numbers, but no names, beside pre-cut ballot perforations called chads. The voter was supposed to slide the ballot into a metal sleeve with the candidates' names, then poke out the corresponding chad with a metal stylus. Several counties used a variation with the candidates' names printed beside the chads.
Punch Card Systems Saw Most Problems
The counties using punch card systems saw the greatest number of spoiled or under-marked ballots--143,235--as voters failed to poke out a chad properly or poked out too many. Some apparently forced ballots upside-down into sleeves. Many ignored the sleeve and poked out chads with no corresponding candidates. Some ignored the stylus and used pens to circle the numbers.