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Fact check: Examining Florida's 'undervote'

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Florida election dispute is boiling down to the so-called undervote -- ballots where machines tallied no vote for president. Lawyers for Vice President Al Gore say humans should count them; lawyers for George W. Bush argue that they're not votes at all.

Some of the 462,000 disputed Palm Beach County ballots are unloaded at the Leon County Courthouse in Tallahassee, Florida, Thursday  

"These are real votes," argues Gore attorney David Boies. "They just haven't been counted because of the limitations of the punch card ballot system."

But Bush's legal team contends that the voters in question were consciously saying "none of the above."

"In fact, those are non-votes. And indeed, it is not unusual for people not to vote fully in every election on a ballot," Bush attorney Irv Terrell said during a recent press conference.

Both campaigns have cited statistics to back up their claims. The Bush team's own calculations turned up only four states with higher rates of non-votes for president -- which include both undervotes and spoiled ballots -- than Florida's on Election Day.

But even that calculation is wrong since Bush aides neglected to include write-in votes. In Wyoming, for example, Bush aides calculate that nearly 3.6 percent of voters failed to cast a valid presidential vote. However, after checking with state officials, CNN calculates that the correct figure is 1.5 percent -- much lower than Florida's percentage.


In making their case, Gore's lawyers point to a different statistic -- a big disparity in undervotes in counties using punch-card ballots, compared to those using ballots read by optical scanners.

Optical ballots -- because you color in or shade in with a No. 2 pencil a little hole -- you don't have the problems of whether you've indented a chad, or dislodged a chad, or partially dislodged a chad," argues Boies.

Gore lawyers figure Florida counties using optical scanners had an undervote of only .04 percent. While punch-card counties -- including the big Democratic counties of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach --- had an undervote about three and a half times as large. The difference, they suggest, is machine error.

CNN did its own calculations here as well. Thirty-six Florida counties that use optical scanners recorded an average undervote of just over .03 percent by our figures, while 18 counties using punch-card systems reported an undercount of more than 1.5 percent -- a substantial disparity.

But not all punch-card counties are Gore country. Bush lawyers point to Duval County, where Gore got less than 37 percent of the vote and did not ask for a recount.

Why don't they want to check Duval County ballots?" asked Ives, referring to the Democrats. "Is it because of the military issue that they seem to be afraid of? I don't know, but we say that you have to check them all if you check them."

Bush lawyers may have a point here. There were nearly 5,000 undervotes in Duval County, 1.7 percent of the total. According to CNN's figures, that's higher than the statewide average, as well as Miami-Dade or Broward Counties, though not quite as high as Palm Beach's 2.6 percent.

But there's another factor, too. Congresswoman Corrine Brown, a Florida Democrat, calculates that 1,400 of those Duval County undervotes came from four African-American precincts, which overwhelmingly supported Gore on Election Day. Her estimate accounts for 28 percent of the Duval County undervote.

Another pro-Bush argument that some are making is that exit polling on Election Day shows that between 1.5 and 2 percent of those surveyed in Miami-Dade said they didn't vote in the presidential race. If true, it would explain the entire official undervote of 1.6 percent.

But Voter News Service, which conducted exit polling on Election Day, says those claims aren't true.

"VNS is telling us that the number of people who purposely didn't vote for President is probably less than one percent," said CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

There's no question Florida has a large undervote -- more than 62,000 ballots statewide, according to county officials contacted by CNN and The Associated Press. It's just enough to fill a football stadium, and -- just perhaps -- change the outcome of the long count for president.


Thursday, November 30, 2000



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