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Human Factor Vote Fiasco*

Human Factor Was at Core Of Vote Fiasco
Decisions and Leadership Were Erratic, Arbitrary
James A. Baker III asserted on Nov. 8 that "the vote in Florida has been recounted," but 18 counties never recounted their ballots. (Tim Sloan - AFP)
• Harris's Election Stance Assailed (The Washington Post, Jan 13, 2001)

By John Mintz and Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 1, 2001; Page A01

Second of two articles

So close was the Nov. 7 presidential election in Florida that state law required an automatic recount the next day. George W. Bush's lead soon slipped to 327 votes. Republican field leader James A. Baker III repeatedly urged an end to the stalemate, asserting that "the vote in Florida has been counted and the vote in Florida has been recounted."

In fact, 18 of the state's 67 counties never recounted the ballots at all. They simply checked their original results. To this day, more than 1.58 million votes have not been counted a second time.

That may be the starkest example of county-to-county disparities that marred the Florida presidential vote, but it wasn't the only one in an election sure to be remembered for its chaotic outcome -- and by those on the losing side, its questionable legitimacy.

A confounding array of vague laws, arbitrary local decisions and erratic leadership by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris's office resulted in turmoil across the state -- from the way voters were treated to how ballots were designed and counted.

For all the focus on faulty voting equipment and errant chads, a review of the election by The Washington Post shows that the trouble in Florida can be traced less to machines than to people.

Many counties used sophisticated voting equipment designed to catch ballot errors -- but two decided simply to switch off the mechanisms. Eight counties printed Spanish ballots for large blocs of Hispanic voters, but one elections supervisor chose not to do so. In 26 counties, ballots were disqualified if people voted for a candidate and wrote in the same candidate's name on their ballots.

"It was different systems, with different standards, different technology, different expectations and different procedures," said Edward T. Foote II, chancellor of the University of Miami and co-chair of a task force named by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) to study the election. "That's a prescription for nonequality of treatment."

Five Supreme Court justices halted the hand recount of Florida ballots on Dec. 12, declaring that standards varied so widely that voters would be denied a "fundamental right" to equal treatment.

The evidence shows that disparate treatment began long before the polls opened on Nov. 7, and continued long afterward.

Unsupervised Supervisors

The secretary of state's first duty, as specified in Florida's 122-page voting law, is to "maintain uniformity" in the conduct of elections. But in a state in which authority to run elections is divided between Tallahassee and 67 county elections supervisors, that was easier said than done.

The supervisors -- all but one of them elected by popular vote -- are so famous for their independence that a post-election report by the Florida Senate asserted that some "often intentionally disregard" election laws. The rest of the time, they made individual decisions as they saw fit.

The Florida Division of Elections -- which is part of the secretary of state's office -- was often passive in dealing with the supervisors, according to national voting experts and elections officials in the state. The division did little to correct the disparities in county voting procedures, and at times created problems of its own.

Setting out to cull felons from voting rolls, for example, the elections division delivered to the counties lists of "probable" felons that contained thousands of names of non-felons. Some county supervisors used the lists to expunge voters, but others discarded them. The state did nothing to reconcile the approaches.

U.S. Civil Rights Commissioner Victoria Wilson told Harris at a public hearing in January that she had "abandoned" the supervisors: "They wanted help, they wanted money, they wanted guidance . . . and the voters really had to pay the price."

Harris replied that no supervisors complained to her personally. She testified that her 39-person staff had no authority to command county officials, that she was not involved in the division's daily management and knew little about its work.

Before the November election, according to people who know her, Harris spent virtually no time on electoral matters, instead focusing on the other responsibilities of her office, particularly matters of commerce and international trade. Harris declined to comment for this story.

Making its job more difficult, the elections division had lost nearly half its staff in recent years, leaving behind an unseasoned team that had never conducted a presidential election.

"It was like asking someone to play in the Super Bowl," said Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Pam Iorio, "when they had never played football before."

Clay Roberts, director of the Division of Elections, said of Florida's elections structure: "It does seem weird. We have some authority to interpret the statutes, but we have no authority to direct the supervisors how to do their jobs. I've been told on numerous occasions that they're elected constitutional officers, and I should mind my own business."

'It Was a Disaster'

An example of a county official going her own way could be found in Osceola County.

Puerto Ricans and new Hispanic citizens have moved by the tens of thousands to Osceola and the rest of central Florida in recent years. Federal law requires ballots to be printed in two languages in any county in which voting-age citizens with English-language deficiencies make up at least 5 percent of the population. Miami-Dade and seven other Florida counties have printed bilingual ballots for years.

But in Osceola, where 29 percent of residents are Hispanic,Elections Supervisor Donna Bryant refused to print ballots in two languages, helping to trigger an inquiry by the U.S. Justice Department. Investigators want to know whether the lack of bilingual ballots and the paucity of Spanish-speaking poll workers interfered with residents' ability to vote.

Bryant said she chose not to print Spanish ballots because of the expense and hassle, and because "we haven't been ordered by the U.S. Justice Department." U.S. officials say many counties print ballots in Spanish without federal prompting.

Armando Rivera, vice chairman of the Osceola Democratic Party, spoke of confusion in heavily Hispanic precincts, where Democratic voters significantly outnumbered Republicans. "It was a disaster," he said. "County officials were ill-prepared and didn't have enough Hispanic poll workers."

Rivera said many Spanish-speaking voters complained of uncertainty about the ballot. Dozens of voters, he said, lost their votes when they marked ballots once for Democrat Al Gore and again for Libertarian Party candidate Harry Browne, whose name appeared in the slot just below Gore and vice presidential candidate Joseph I. Lieberman.

Why? Rivera said they confused "Libertarian" and "Lieberman."

The Florida ballot proved confusing to plenty of English speakers as well. Whether it was the Palm Beach butterfly ballot or the "wraparound" ballots that spread the presidential candidates across two columns, voters by the thousands cast votes for two candidates, invalidating their ballots.

A complicating factor was the instruction in the presidential section of all Florida ballots to "Vote for Group." Even elections officials differ on the meaning of that phrase, disputing whether it meant to vote for a two-member presidential ticket or for Florida's 25-member slate of presidential electors.

The origins of the two-column ballots varied, with county supervisors having the final say. Much of the controversy has focused on Palm Beach, where supervisor Theresa LePore designed the infamous butterfly ballot to accommodate large type for elderly voters. Gore likely lost about 6,500 votes there as a result of voter error or confusion, an analysis by The Post shows.

Less well-known, however, is the role of the secretary of state's office in developing a ballot that some voters found to be confusing. Florida law requires the office to dispatch "the format of the ballot" to all 67 supervisors of elections. The wraparound version sent by Harris's staff featured the 10-candidate presidential race stretched across two columns.

The Houston-based printer for at least a dozen counties used the state sample as a model. Vice President Bill Stotesbery of Hart InterCivic said the firm's designers tried "to get it as close as possible to the sample ballot."

Voter error was unusually high in a number of the counties that used the wraparound ballot. Studies show that a disproportionate number of voters mistakenly voted for two candidates, one from each column.

Software Glitch

One of the greatest frustrations for voters on Election Day was being told by poll workers that they were not registered. A significant culprit was the haphazard operation of the state's motor-voter laws, designed to allow citizens to register when they obtained or renewed driver's licenses.

Since 1995, Florida's motor vehicles agency has processed 570,000 new voter registration forms a year. Balky computer software created numerous errors on application forms, according to state officials.

Attention to detail varied widely. Staffers sometimes failed to complete the forms. In the Tampa area, certain motor vehicle offices did not obtain required voter signatures on 1 of every 15 forms. Other prospective voters may not have realized that a separate application was required.

In countless cases last year, elections supervisors said, the agency failed to deliver new voter information to the counties in time for the election.

"We never got the forms. Under the law, they're not registered to vote," Leon County supervisor Ion Sancho said. "It was not a good experience."

Second Chance -- for Some

When Florida voters went to the polls Nov. 7, they encountered four voting systems. Forty-one counties used optical-scan machines, which electronically read ovals colored in by voters. Another 24 counties used punch cards. One used lever machines and another used paper ballots common in the 1800s.

The 1960s-era punch-card machines, now infamous for their hanging and pregnant chads, were widely panned for causing mistakes. But it turns out that the more modern optical-scan systems -- soon to be installed in more Florida counties -- had problems of their own.

"Optical-scan ballot design offers voters so many opportunities to vote improperly that they are limited only by their own imaginations," the Florida Senate said in its March report. Thousands of ballots went uncounted, for example, when voters erred by making a circle or a check mark next to the candidate's name, or used their own pens with the wrong color ink.

In some precincts with optical-scan ballots, those who voted twice in the same race were rescued by machines programmed to reject such ballots and give voters a second chance. But not all counties with such ballots possessed the equipment, and not all counties with the equipment used it on Election Day.

Escambia and Manatee counties possessed the second-chance capability but deactivated it. Escambia Supervisor Bonnie Jones said, "People should be able to mark their vote correctly." She said giving voters a chance to correct mistakes "increases the cost of an election," because ballots cost 25 cents apiece.

"Maybe that was a bad judgment call," Jones mused. "Who's to say?"

The state provided no guidelines, Roberts said. "The statutes were silent on the issue."

In the 24 optical-scan counties that gave voters a second chance, only one ballot in 167 was invalidated -- .6 percent. In the 15 counties in which the technology did not exist, one ballot in 17 was rejected -- 5.7 percent.

The 24 punch-card counties, all of which lacked the second-chance capability, had a rejection rate of 1 in 25 -- 3.9 percent.

As many as 120,000 Florida ballots could have been corrected by voters if every county had employed modern machines with second-chance technology.

Seeing Double

Suppose a voter filled in the oval -- or punched a hole -- beside a candidate's name, and also wrote in the candidate's name on the same ballot. Does the vote count?

Twenty-six counties did not count the ballots, most because their machines automatically invalidated them. In seven of these counties, elections officers decided that the voter had cast a ballot improperly.

In Lake County, where the double-voted ballots were rejected, Supervisor Emogene Stegall defended the decision by saying of voters: "The only thing I know is they failed to read instructions." Okeechobee County Supervisor Gwen Chandler said, "I did not want to get into subjective calling."

Elections officers in 34 counties, however, studied such ballots on Election Day and counted them in the final totals, concluding that the voter's intent was clear. Pinellas Supervisor Deborah Clark said: "Duh! If it's the same person, it's a no-brainer."

Indeed, elections officials routinely made judgments about voter intent at several stages in the election process. Canvassers performed these evaluations in varied circumstances, some involving regular ballots, some involving absentees. Elections officers in some optical-scan counties, for example, judged ballots as valid even when voters simply checked or circled a candidate's name.

A Lack of Direction

When George W. Bush's narrow lead triggered the immediate statewide recount on Nov. 8, Harris and the elections staff did not make clear what county supervisors should do.

"That was one point in the process where the division needed to step in and say, 'This is what should be done,' " said Iorio, the Hillsborough elections supervisor who also leads the state association of elections chiefs.

Florida election code requires a recount when the margin between candidates is less than .5 percent, but some supervisors felt the statute was unclear. Instead of recounting, officials in the 18 counties simply checked the counting mechanisms on their voting machines to determine whether the numbers matched the official Nov. 7 results.

Two years earlier, the issue seemed settled. In April 1999, Division of Elections Director Ethel Baxter wrote Manatee County Elections Supervisor Bob Sweat in simple terms: "It is our opinion that 'recount' means to count again."

Baxter's letter was not binding in other counties, and thus supervisors felt free to ignore her opinion. Nor did Harris or Roberts take steps to ensure uniform procedures. Asked why the elections office took no steps to ensure uniform procedures, Roberts said that supervisors knew state officials believed recounts should be performed. He cited the 1999 opinion and a discussion at a conference of supervisors last summer.

Sweat, at least, conducted a recount, running all of Manatee's 111,676 ballots through machines on Nov. 8. Gore gained four votes.

Overlooking the Deadline

Matthew Hendrickson, a sailor aboard the cruiser USS Ticonderoga, mailed his overseas absentee ballot from Puerto Rico on Nov. 13, six days after the Election Day deadline. He knew the presidential race was undecided and he wanted Bush to win. Records show that Duval County included his vote in its results.

"I dropped it off at the mailbox," Hendrickson said in an interview. "I was just seeing if it would count or not."

At the time of the election, Florida law was explicit: To count, a ballot must be dated and postmarked by Election Day. It must be witnessed by another person, and the voter must have formally requested the ballot.

Some counties, including Miami-Dade and Hillsborough, followed the law to the letter, while others tallied ballots that lacked postmarks or failed to meet other requirements. This was particularly true in north Florida, home to several large military bases, where officials responded to GOP arguments that military ballots often aren't postmarked, mailed or delivered on time.

At least 17 ballots examined by The Post in four north Florida counties were counted despite bearing postmarks dated after Nov. 7. Scores more were counted after arriving without postmarks in elections offices between Nov. 8 and Nov. 17, the deadline for overseas absentee ballots to be received. Election watchers note there is no way to know when ballots without postmarks were completed.

When elections officers opened the envelopes on Nov. 17, lawyers for George W. Bush said it was unfair to enforce the technicalities of state law against America's fighting men and women. Under pressure, Democrats decided not to challenge ballots that lacked required features.

The result was a rout of the Democrats in the northern counties, where Bush picked up 176 votes that lacked postmarks and other required features.

Elsewhere, particularly in Democratic counties, canvassing boards saw things the opposite way -- as did the Bush forces, who demanded that strict state rules be followed. In overwhelmingly Democratic Broward County, elections officials rejected 304 overseas ballots for various technical reasons, including 119 because they lacked postmarks, Democrats said. Miami-Dade invalidated about 200; Volusia threw out 43 and Orange 117. All three counties voted Democratic.

After counties reached their conflicting decisions, U.S. District Judge Lacey A. Collier ruled on Dec. 8 that officials in several jurisdictions must count ballots even if they lacked foreign postmarks or if the voter had not formally requested an absentee ballot.

Manatee supervisor Sweat recalled the tense moments when overseas ballots were being studied in Bradenton. Democratic observers challenged "anything they could," he recalled, until he advised them to look more closely at the unopened ballot envelopes.

He showed them the place on the pre-printed mailing labels that identified the voters' party identification. Contrary to standards of fairness, elections officials in Manatee and Okaloosa counties knew voters' political affiliation before deciding whether their votes would count.

At no point did state officials try to bring order to the chaos. "We do not," said Roberts, "have authority to tell county supervisors to do anything."

The Legislature Acts

To fix the problems with the election, the Florida Legislature passed a law last month streamlining and unifying aspects of the process. On votes of 120 to 0 in the House and 38 to 2 in the Senate, the legislature ordered that punch-card ballots be replaced by optical-scan equipment that allows voters to correct their mistakes. Recount rules will be standardized statewide. Ballots will share a logical design and will be overseen by the state.

Roberts foresees a busy summer as he and his staff formulate new regulations to corral the 67 supervisors and help make Florida elections more nearly uniform.

Ruminating on the discordant system that produced the remarkable November 2000 election, he said, "It's an odd way to run a government."

Staff writer Dan Keating and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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