In the Eye of the Storm

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Gary I. Rothstein/AP

Confusion over ballot design has resulted in a flood of complaints

No one would blame the people of Florida if they were starting to get a little snippy, as Al Gore might put it. First they provided — and endured — the superabundant drama of Elián González. Now all the frustrations of one of the closest elections in American history have made a landing on Palm Beach. Florida is the center of a struggle over the operations of American democracy at every level, from the wisdom of the electoral college to the arrangement of punch holes on a paper ballot. Fidel Castro's foreign minister, Felipe Pérez Roque, even suggested last week that a new election in Florida would be a good idea. Maybe they could send election monitors from Cuba to ensure the fairness of the vote count. It would all be funny if the laughs didn't come so hard.

With George W. Bush possibly sustaining a lead of fewer than 400 votes after last week's statewide recount, the outcome in Florida, and thus the nation, has shifted to the most low-tech of fronts. Everything hinges on the absentee votes still drifting in from abroad, which are not expected to be fully counted until this Friday. Even more important, because they could easily reverse Bush's narrow lead, are the manual recounts that have been approved by local electoral commissions in Palm Beach, Broward and Volusia counties.

A commission in Miami-Dade was supposed to meet this week to consider a Democratic request for a hand count there as well. But on Saturday, as the tedious process was beginning elsewhere, the Bush campaign asked a federal judge in South Florida to disqualify manual counts anywhere in the state and certify the recount already completed. Democrats quickly put out word that Bush had liked hand counts in Texas. Three years ago, he signed a law recommending them to settle disputed votes.

Both parties had been saying for weeks that the presidential campaign would all come down to Florida. Neither of them suspected how much of it would come down to Palm Beach County. Or to the experience of people like Andre Fladell, 52, a Jewish chiropractor. At around 7 a.m., he punched his ballot at Orchard Elementary School in Delray Beach. On the way out, when he heard people complain that the ballot had confused them, he assumed they had not paid enough attention. But at lunch later with friends, Fladell says, he broke into a cold sweat when he heard them describe the correct punch hole for Gore-Lieberman. Fladell realized that he too had inadvertently voted for Pat Buchanan, a man who has had, to put it mildly, some problems with Jewish voters. "A ballot is supposed to lead me to my vote," says Fladell, who is now a plaintiff in one of several lawsuits seeking to invalidate the Palm Beach vote. "This one led me away."

Frustration with the Palm Beach ballot had begun to go public even before the polls closed. At the Lucerne Point residence community, poll workers were so overwhelmed by complaints that they had to draw a diagram showing where each ticket's punch hole was located. Theresa LePore, the Palm Beach County election supervisor who had signed off on the ballot design, soon arranged for a flyer to be distributed at polling places around the county that would help voters decipher it. LePore, a Democrat, told reporters that day that she had favored the design partly because it permitted larger type that was easier for older voters to read.

Around 4 p.m., Democratic National Committee officials put in an urgent call to TeleQuest, a Texas-based telemarketing firm, asking it to call thousands of Palm Beach voters to alert them to the complications on the ballot. Two hours later the company's phone clerks began making the first of some 5,000 calls. A TeleQuest spokesman said afterward almost half the people contacted thought they might have made a mistake when they voted.

"I don't think people understand the complexity of Florida," says Republican Lieutenant Governor Frank Brogan. "You can't take anything for granted about this state." Certainly not the electoral map. Over the past decade, the political power of Miami's conservative Cuban Americans has been challenged by an influx of non-Cuban Latinos who lean toward the Democrats. Non-Latino Democrats in the southern end of the state are balanced by white Republicans in the northern Panhandle, while myriad new immigrant groups have allegiances that are still up for grabs. Dario Moreno, a political scientist at Miami's Florida International University, points out that the mix was not usually inflammatory — "as long as lightning didn't strike."

Lightning was striking everywhere by the early evening of Election Day, as hundreds of optimistic state Republicans gathered to watch the returns in the grand ballroom of the Doubletree Hotel in Tallahassee. When the networks first awarded Florida to Gore, around 7:50 p.m., the party mood deflated fast. In an upstairs suite, the state's usually boisterous Republican leaders were thunderstruck. "There was dead silence," says Brogan. "It didn't seem possible." Al Cardenas, the state's GOP chairman, was frantically checking returns on a laptop that showed Bush ahead in the few precincts that had reported. Knowing that the loss of Florida could discourage Republicans from bothering to vote in Western states, where the polls were still open, Cardenas put in the first of what would be more than 20 calls that night to Florida governor Jeb Bush in Austin, Texas, who was following returns on his laptop.

Even some Florida Democratic officials were surprised by the early awarding of the state to Gore. One explanation was that initial exit polls had been skewed by an early and especially large turnout of African-American voters for Gore. In the end, they would account for more than 16 percent of the state's overall vote, almost double the usual black vote. Less than an hour after the network announcement, the Republican response began to take shape. Brogan and the other officials in his suite went downstairs to the ballroom to announce that they had serious doubts about the networks' projections. "We didn't believe Florida was over," he says.

It wasn't. A few hours later the networks had taken the state away from Gore and given it to Bush — along with the presidency.

After 2 a.m. the returns from two heavily Democratic areas, Miami's Dade County and Broward, where Fort Lauderdale is located, had cut Bush's lead for a while to as few as 200 votes. That was when Florida Democratic leaders started working their phones furiously, calling state attorney general Bob Butterworth, Gore's Florida campaign chairman. Butterworth himself was on the phone with senior Gore advisers in Nashville, telling them that the vice president should not concede. "You couldn't help feeling that something was being stolen from us," says a state Democratic chief.

At 4 a.m., right after Gore phoned Bush to retract his concession, Volusia County judge Michael McDermott ordered the building that houses the election supervisors, as well as the Dumpsters outside, sealed. At one point during election night, hundreds of votes for Gore had disappeared from the computer count, though they reappeared later. There is a history of election disputes in Volusia, among them the 1996 reelection of sheriff Bob Vogel, when a controversial count of absentee ballots put Vogel ahead of an opponent he had trailed on election night. That led two years later to a Florida Supreme Court decision that said elections in that state could be invalidated merely for reasons of Election Day error, even in the absence of outright fraud, so long as there was doubt that the outcome reflected "the will of the voters." But it did not specify when the remedy should involve ordering a new election, something Democrats have talked about for Palm Beach. And Florida courts have almost never gone to that length.

As the closeness of the vote became apparent, Democratic officials were also concerned about the absentee vote, which they knew could be decisive in an election as close as this one, but which had also been at issue in some famously disputed Florida elections of recent years. In the Miami Beach mayoral race three years ago, incumbent Joe Carollo, a Republican, won 51 percent of the votes cast at polling places. His challenger, ex-mayor Xavier Suarez, who ran as an independent, won 61 percent of the absentees, forcing the contest into a runoff that Suarez won with a large number of absentee ballots. Carollo filed suit, claiming that Suarez forged signatures on absentee ballots. In March 1998, Judge Thomas S. Wilson Jr. found massive fraud and ordered a new election. When Carollo appealed, arguing he should simply be declared the winner without a new election, the higher court agreed.

On Wednesday morning resentment over the Palm Beach screwup was high. The state Democratic party set up a toll-free number to allow people to call in reports of voting irregularities. If the election was turning into a mystery, then all of Florida would be vacuumed for clues. Questions mounted: When poll workers turned away people with the explanation that there were not enough ballots, when they illegally asked seniors for a Social Security number, was it an innocent mistake or deliberate obstruction? Meanwhile, a statewide recount of the Florida vote was already assured, triggered by a law that requires one for any election in which the winning margin is under one-half of 1 percent of the vote.

It was also on Wednesday that Jesse Jackson flew to Miami from Gore's campaign headquarters in Nashville, Tenn. Jackson was quick to insist that the issue was "not about black and white, it's about wrong and right," but his presence helped point up another angle to the Democratic challenge: complaints of what some black voters believed were subtle forms of racial intimidation, such as the police roadblock that was set up on voting day about a mile from a minority-neighborhood polling place in rural Wakulla County.

On Thursday more than 300 African-American students from nearby Florida A&M University came to the capitol in Tallahassee and staged a sit-in, demanding to see Jeb Bush and state attorney general Butterworth. But by this time frustrated Republicans were getting snippy too. That afternoon scores of counter-protesters arrived at the same site wearing Bush-Cheney T-shirts, shouting down pro-Gore demonstrators on the capitol plaza and waving signs that read "My grandmother can vote correctly... why can't yours?"

If she couldn't, it might have been because of the cardboard ballots used in the disputed counties. The machines that tabulate the punch cards often invalidate ballots in which voters have not cleanly broken through the perforated hole. A bit of cardboard chaff clinging to the puncture, officially known as a "hanging chad," is enough to confuse the counting machine, which helps explain how thousands of ballots can register a vote for some offices but not others. Of the more than 600,000 votes cast in Broward County, the machines found no vote for president on 6,686 ballots in a place that gave Gore 68 percent of the vote. In counties in which ballots were scanned by other means, the percentage was typically a fraction of 1 percent. In Pinellas County, when election officials removed the chaff from ballots before they were submitted for recount by the machines, Gore picked up an additional 417 votes.

When Bill Daley, the Gore campaign chairman, went before the cameras on Thursday to emphasize that the Gore campaign was ready to challenge the Florida outcome, lawsuits challenging the ballot were sprouting all around Palm Beach County. Many were spearheaded by citizens with Democratic party connections, though none of them yet had the official involvement of the state or national party. Jim Green, an ACLU lawyer in Palm Beach, was collecting statements from anyone who called his office. "All five lines here were lit up nonstop," he says. With union activists rounding up Florida notaries to take affidavits from the callers, Green figured that he would have 250 plaintiffs for the ballot-challenge suit he planned to file this week.

On Thursday night, Palm Beach County circuit-court judge Kathleen Kroll issued an injunction that barred the county from certifying the recount results until a hearing on Nov. 14. In this initial phase, Florida law gives lower-court judges considerable power to decide if a vote is valid and, if not, to rule on remedies. The initial thing to determine is whether the confusing Palm Beach ballot was illegal in the first place. Democrats contend that it violates a provision of state election law that requires each candidate's name to appear to the left of the corresponding punch hole. Republicans say the Democrats are reading the wrong section of Florida law. Though the Palm Beach ballots are cardboard, the cards are read by machines, and the law, they say, allows the names of candidates on "mechanical" ballots to be placed on either side of the hole.

Republicans also complained that samples of the ballot, which had been used before in Palm Beach without incident, had been published in the local paper and mailed to voters before the election. But Lillian Gaines, 67, a retired schoolteacher in West Palm Beach who is a plaintiff in one of the ballot lawsuits, says the sample did not show that the punch holes would not be aligned with the names. "This is what made it so confusing for people when they finally went into the booth," says her attorney, Harold Weiss.

The judges can also choose from any number of methods to determine whether the votes affected were sufficient to change the statewide outcome, since the central issue is which candidate will be awarded Florida's electoral votes. One of those methods is a statistical analysis of the kind that has shown that Buchanan's total of 3,407 votes in heavily Democratic Palm Beach was far higher than his tally elsewhere in the state. If a court decides that the election is invalid, it would still be necessary to rule on whether a new vote is the only remedy. Florida courts, like courts in most other states, have been reluctant to order new elections even in cases of outright fraud. But in a circumstance as novel and highly charged as this one, the past may not be any guide.

No guide at all. Jesse Jackson says the conclusion to this year's campaign is like a football game tied in the fourth quarter. "Overtime ain't agony," he said. "If you go to sudden death, that's wow-wee! That's shakalakalaka." By the end of this week, the Florida votes may all be counted and recounted, but the court rulings may still be pending, and the election of the president may still depend on how the dust settles in the Sunshine State. Shakalakalaka would be the word for it.

— Reported by Tim Padgett and Kathie Klarreich/Palm Beach, Cathy Booth Thomas and Timothy Roche/Tallahassee, Brad Liston/Volusia, Jeanne Dequine and Mary Sutter/Miami and Viveca Novak/Washington