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Election Official Feels Wrath of Florida Voters

The creator of notorious 'butterfly' ballot loses primary race. She was assailed for refusing to add safeguards to touch- screen polling machines.

September 02, 2004|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — As a final irony, there has been a last-minute discrepancy in tallying absentee ballots. Theresa A. LePore, the elections supervisor in Palm Beach County who gained notoriety as the designer of the "butterfly" ballot that helped trigger Florida's 2000 election chaos, appeared Wednesday to have lost her job.

"The voter anger was obvious, and LePore became the target this year," when she sought a third term, said Shari L. Maclachlan, a professor of political science at Palm Beach Community College.

The Democratic Party, the dominant force in her county's politics, criticized LePore, 49, for refusing to add safeguards to new touch-screen voting machines that would generate a paper trail for use in the event of a recount.

According to still uncertified results from Tuesday's primary, LePore lost to Arthur Anderson by 5,533 votes out of more than 177,000 cast. Anderson, 63, is an education professor at Florida Atlantic University and a former member of the county school board.

Although the race was nonpartisan, Anderson was championed by U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler, a Boca Raton Democrat, and boosted by campaign appearances by two former Democratic presidential candidates -- Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

After a night spent following the returns, Anderson was sleeping and unavailable for comment, a family member at his Boca Raton home said Wednesday.

"I just want to win so I can continue doing the job I love," LePore was quoted as saying Tuesday by Associated Press. On Wednesday, co-workers in the supervisor's office said she had not come to work. LePore began working in the county elections office in West Palm Beach as a file clerk 33 years ago.

"She's worked in that office since she was 16 years old. So this is a significant shock and a loss that's going to take some time to heal," spokesman Marty Rogol said.

LePore remains in office until January and will therefore oversee another presidential election.

In 2000, LePore created the butterfly ballot, in which the names of presidential candidates were listed on opposing pages. She said she did it to make the type bigger, so the ballot would be easier for the county's seniors to read.

However, almost immediately after the polls opened, some voters complained that LePore's design had led them to vote for conservative Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan instead of the Democrat, Vice President Al Gore.

LePore quickly became the object of intense hatred and loathing, and when the Republican candidate, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, was declared official winner in Florida by 537 votes, some blamed her.

She replied that the Democratic and Republican parties had signed off on the ballot before the election, and she noted that Gore carried Palm Beach County by more than 116,000 votes.

"Unfortunately, Ms. LePore did not help matters for herself because she never took responsibility," said Carol Ann Loehndorf, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Palm Beach County. "There was a continuous effort to blame the voters."

If LePore had advocated additional technology to create a paper record for the new touch-screen machines -- which the supervisor purchased to prevent a repeat of the 2000 debacle -- Loehndorf said Democrats would probably not have challenged her this year.

Asked to explain his boss' defeat, Rogol blamed "residual anger from 2000 and the relentless effort by Congressman Wexler to defeat her."

Wexler, who has sued in state and federal court to demand that the touch-screen machines be modified -- so far to no avail -- paid for a barrage of TV ads against LePore and brought in Dean and Lieberman to campaign for her rival.

Although LePore presided over nearly flawless elections in 2002, some voters this year complained that her new design for absentee ballots might lead to more miscast votes.

On Wednesday, a problem with tallying absentee ballots delayed certification of Palm Beach County returns until today at the earliest. Rogol said that 31,095 ballots had been received, but that the counting machine for some unknown reason showed it had tallied 37,839 ballots. A recount was ordered. Rogol said he did not think the county's latest election glitch would affect the final results.

LePore had been a registered Democrat until the 2000 debacle, then registered as an independent. She received support in her reelection bid from some Republicans.

It came out in the campaign that Anderson had more than $93,000 in tax liens by the Internal Revenue Service, as well as a court order deducting money from his university salary to pay a woman who had sued him for paternity and child support.

Although LePore relished the contact with voters, Democratic official Marla Gale said she had come to be perceived by many as insufficiently mindful of people's concerns.

"A lot of Democrats -- and Republicans -- were embarrassed at how Florida looked in the 2000 election and the jokes at our expense," said Gale, a member of the Palm Beach County Democratic Executive Committee.

"Now, a majority of people are concerned about the [touch-screen] machines. If she were responsive, she should have been lobbying for another system."

In Broward County, another controversial elections supervisor, Miriam Oliphant -- who Gov. Jeb Bush suspended for incompetence in November -- was defeated Tuesday in her bid to get back her job. She lost to Brenda Snipes, the woman Bush had named as her interim replacement.

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