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Congressman says 19,000 Florida votes invalidated; 2 suits filed over irregularities

U.S. presidency hinges on Florida recount

BOCA, RATON, Florida (CNN) -- Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Florida, says 19,000 votes in Palm Beach County have been disqualified because of a faulty ballot. His charge comes as Florida recounts votes cast during Tuesday's election to decide the next president of the United States.

Both presidential candidates, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, are waiting to learn the results of the Florida recount. The candidate who wins Florida is expected to win the U.S. presidency.

With 21 counties reporting their recount early Thursday, Gore gained 642 votes and Bush added 144. The new count in Florida was 2,909,404 for Bush and 2,908,126 for Gore -- a difference of 1,278 votes.


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Officials at the Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor's office could not be reached for comment on Wexler's remarks, nor could officials at the Florida Division of Elections.

At a news conference on Wednesday, Wexler said those 19,000 ballots were double-punched and "disqualified because they voted twice."

He said the greatest concentration of those double-punched votes came from African-American communities, and he charged that 15 percent of the black vote in the county was disqualified.

The NAACP and other groups are scheduled to hold a protest rally at noon today in front of the Palm Beach County government center.

"It's an exceptional circumstance," says CNN Senior Political Analyst Bill Schneider, commenting on Wexler's remarks. "No one's charging fraud," Schneider says. But some voters are saying that the ballot design was confusing.

Palm Beach County officials said they received a number of complaints about "a different type of ballot ... Some people said it did cause confusion; we do not know that yet," Attorney General Bob Butterworth said.

Suits challenge election

At least two lawsuits have been filed in state and federal court challenging results of the election. The NAACP has asked the Justice Department to investigate alleged voting irregularities involving minorities in Florida.

On Wednesday three voters in Palm Beach County filed a lawsuit claiming they were deprived of their voting rights because of the confusing design of vote ballots.

The suit says the voters intended to vote for Vice President Al Gore, but because the ballot pages were confusing, their votes were mistakenly cast for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan instead.

Filed in Palm Beach County Circuit Court against the county's vote canvassing board and election officials, the suit asks for a new election.

Because the ballot was designed in a way that led some voters to cast their ballot for Buchanan instead of Gore, their intended choice for president. they were deprived of the right to vote in the election, the suit says.

Buchanan garnered 3,407 votes in the heavily Democratic county, which many observers claimed was highly unlikely. The lawyer for plaintiffs in the suit filed on Wednesday said their goal of the lawsuit is to invalidate the presidential election in Palm Beach County, where about 200,000 votes were cast,and to hold a new round of balloting.

Petition circulated

At least 50 people went door to door Wednesday in Palm Beach County, asking residents to sign a petition for a new presidential election. They want the results voided as well, due to problems with the format of the ballot.

In Miami-Dade County, the punch card itself was the subject of scrutiny on Wednesday. The tiny piece of paper sometimes left dangling when a hole is punched, which officials called a "chad," could result in misread ballots if the chad closes up or falls off, said David Leahy, the county's elections supervisor.

"We anticipate changes," Leahy said, adding that he would not be surprised to find different results.

Absentee votes a factor

Some Florida counties continued their recount overnight; the state recount officially begins again on Thursday morning.

Processing of the recounted vote at the Florida Division of Elections finished for the day around 5 p.m. EST Wednesday, a spokeswoman said.

Florida is recounting ballots cast in all 67 counties. A spokeswoman says an estimated 30,000 overseas ballots were sent out. There is a 10-day grace period in which to count those as long as they were postmarked by November 7.

When a race is close, absentee votes can make a difference. In the 1996 presidential election more than 2,000 overseas absentee ballots were cast by Florida voters. That number is greater than the margin dividing the two current presidential candidates in Florida.

The Elections Division's Web site crashed Wednesday because of an overload of people trying to access the site, and workers were trying to arrange for more servers.

Because the vote difference was less than one half of 1 percent of all votes cast, a recount was required under Florida law, state officials said.

"The recount will be conducted in each county by the statutorily prescribed county canvassing board. It is expected that the recount will be completed by the close of business on Thursday, November 9, 2000," said the statement released by the Florida Division of Elections.

The 17 counties completely recounted and processed by the state elections division are Baker, Collier, Dixie, Franklin, Gilchrist, Hamilton, Highlands, Indian River, Jefferson, Lee, Levy, Marion, Pasco, Santa Rosa, St. Johns, Sumter and Union.

In two other counties, populous Broward and Miami-Dade, the recount also was completed but not yet processed by the state. State officials said the recount had begun around 1 p.m. EST Wednesday and would be completed by the close of business Thursday.

Once the recount is certified by each county, the state Elections Canvassing Commission will certify the state results. After 10 days, the same commission will certify the results from overseas absentee ballots. Gov. Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate's brother, recused himself from the certification process.

The Gore campaign sent a team from Nashville, Tennessee, to Florida on Wednesday morning to observe the recount. Headed by Warren Christopher, the former U.S. Secretary of State who also led Gore's search for a running mate, the team also includes Ron Klain, a top Gore adviser and former chief of staff for the vice president.

The Bush campaign has dispatched former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker.

CNN correspondents Eric Philips and Susan Candiotti contributed to this report.



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