Somebody must count Florida ballots if there's to be reform

March 16, 2001

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- For those wondering, sometimes angrily, why the Palm Beach Post and other news organizations continue to review ballots from Florida's presidential election, the answer is that journalists are doing what the courts would not.

After Al Gore contested the Florida results, Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls ordered 1.1 million ballots from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties trucked to Tallahassee. Yet Mr. Sauls refused to examine them, though they were the evidence. His ruling against a statewide recount of under-votes -- an order the U.S. Supreme Court upheld -- made George W. Bush president by judicial order, not the counting of votes. No president had taken office under those circumstances.

The truck that carried Palm Beach County's 462,644 ballots to the capital also held important lessons about democracy. Someone had to look inside. So Post reporters inspected more than 28,000 of the discarded and disputed ballots -- 19,125 over-votes and 9,150 under-votes. Saturday, the paper reported that the under-votes could have produced 784 votes for Mr. Gore, enough to give him the state, if the canvassing board had used standards the Democrats favored. Sunday, the paper reported that over-votes resulting from confusion about the ballot cost Mr. Gore roughly 6,600 votes.

The results published over the weekend show how human and mechanical error combined to foment Election Day chaos. The Post's review of the under-votes, cards on which the machines couldn't read a punch, points to mechanical defects. Data Punch machines had a much higher incidence of failed punches than Votomatic machines, suggesting that equipment made a difference.

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris insists that voter error was responsible for all election problems. It was not. Stupid machines did more damage than stupid voters, though no one can hope to explain the 28 county voters who punched for all 10 presidential candidates.

The Post's examination of over-votes, ballots that had multiple selections for president, proved how much Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore's flawed design influenced the course of history. Her butterfly ballot caused a four-fold increase in over-voting from 1996. The state's elections supervisors had only one requirement in designing their ballots, and it saved George W. Bush. The party that won the most votes in the last election for governor must be listed first, so the names Bush and Cheney appeared at the top, away from the cluttered middle where Democrats for Mr. Gore punched [Patrick] Buchanan by mistake. Reverse that, and Republicans would be crying foul today.

Two other reviews of all the state's discarded and uncounted ballots are nearly done. The Miami Herald and USA Today are working on one. Another will come from a consortium including the Post, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the St. Petersburg Times, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, CNN and the Associated Press.

The reviews will produce lots of numbers and arguments and change no results. But when all the analysis is in, the legislature must make changes. Florida needs a modern, integrated voting system in place by 2002.

Gov. Jeb Bush says he has set aside $30 million for new equipment, and he devoted one line in his state-of-the-state address to election reform. Neither is enough. The legislature must deal with other election issues concerning absentee ballots, enfranchisement of ex-felons, accurate voter rolls and civil rights abuses.

President Bush Monday told Floridians to "move forward." Without reforms, that can't happen. Without reforms, the election remains unfinished business. Each discarded ballot reaffirms this reality. In the cause of reform, they all count.

This article first appeared as an editorial Tuesday in the Palm Beach (Florida) Post.

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