Vitriol of 2000 vote lingers

SUN JOURNAL

Florida: As she runs for re-election, the Palm Beach County elections supervisor is still vilified for designing the confusing butterfly ballot.

March 21, 2004|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - More than three years later, Theresa LePore still gets hate mail.

The Palm Beach County elections supervisor, who designed the butterfly ballot that confounded voters and might have contributed to Al Gore's razor-thin loss in 2000, recently received a voice-mail message from a former colleague.

"He said, `You've got the blood of 500 American men and women on your hands. You are responsible for this war. You are responsible for 9/11. You don't even deserve to be in jail. You should be in a grave,' " LePore recalls.

She shakes her head and chuckles. She's used to it by now, to people coming up to her in supermarkets and at church, to hurtful phone calls and e-mails. It's just part of the job for the most famous elections head in the country, the person some people still accuse of denying Gore the presidency.

"For every one person who's nasty, there are 10 who are nice," LePore says. "But it's the nasty ones you remember."

That isn't stopping her from running for re-election. LePore was first elected to her job in 1996 and has worked in various jobs in the Palm Beach County elections office since 1971, when she was 16 years old. She will be on the ballot again in the fall, the first time she will have faced voters since 2000.

Unlike that election, when she ran unopposed, this year she has challengers. Elections supervisors in Palm Beach County are officially nonpartisan, but that hasn't stopped prominent Democrats from recruiting a popular former school board president, Arthur Anderson, to run against LePore.

"The greatest right of citizenship is not only to vote, but to have your vote counted," says Anderson, 63. "I believe that every vote has to be counted, and I don't believe our supervisor of elections has demonstrated she's committed to that."

LePore, 48, is a quiet, intense woman whose job is her life. Supervising a full-time staff of about 30 people, she is usually in her office by 6:30 a.m. and often works until about 9 p.m. She grew up in Palm Beach County, went to high school and community college here and can't imagine doing anything else.

Perhaps that's why the attacks after the 2000 election felt so personal. It wasn't just phone calls and e-mail. Two days after the election, LePore walked from her office to her car to find nails in the tires and long scratches - apparently made by keys - on both sides.

She was given round-the-clock police protection, and officers were stationed at the entrance to her neighborhood. People who wanted to drive in had to prove that they lived there. LePore says her staff, too, felt the pressure.

"I've got an excellent staff, and they have to hear a lot of this stuff, too, and they're very good about turning the other cheek," she says. "They know they've got a tough year ahead of them because it's not just me, it's the whole family in here that's got to deal with this."

Political analysts say it will be a difficult year for LePore, saying the race is likely to be expensive and personal and turn into a referendum on LePore's performance in 2000. Despite the challenges, no one is surprised that the woman derided as "Madame Butterfly" by the news media is running again.

"I don't think it's surprising on a personal level, because she's maintained all along that she did nothing wrong and that flukes of nature were simply beyond her control," says David Niven, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. "But on a political level, it is surprising because she must have the highest negatives of any elected official in the country.

"Theresa LePore can wish this race isn't going to be about the year 2000, but that isn't going to make it so."

LePore says she wants to move beyond 2000 and make the election about the technology improvements and voter education efforts she has undertaken since then. But resentment still lingers from four years ago, and the election is shaping up to be very much about the past.

"People are still mad. They're very, very upset," says May Duke, a former president of the Democratic Club of Century Village, the largest retirement community in Palm Beach County. Duke says she won't be voting for LePore because LePore didn't take responsibility for the confusion in 2000.

"I don't think she has the right respect for my vote, and this is very important to me," says Duke, 76. "I truly believe this is a young woman who works very hard, tried very hard and screwed up totally."

The 2000 ballot listed Gore and George Bush on one page and conservative Pat Buchanan on the opposite page. Voters had to punch a hole in the center of the booklet to make their choice, and many were unsure which hole corresponded with Gore and which with Buchanan.

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