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Election scrutiny focused on Palm Beach ballot

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (CNN) -- Call it the Incredible Shrinking Election: The U.S. presidential contest, which came down to the vote in a few key states, is now focused on the ballot in a single county of a single state.

  Click for a larger view
Sample of the disputed Palm Beach County ballot

Complaints about Palm Beach County's so-called "butterfly ballot" has turned the outcome of the presidential race in Florida -- where the state's 25 votes in the Electoral College will determine the winner nationwide -- and threatened to keep a decision between Democratic Vice President Al Gore and Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush tied up in court for several more days, if not weeks.

The ballot listed candidates for president on two facing pages, with voters marking their choices in a column between them. The ballots are marked with a black arrow pointing toward the proper spot to mark for each candidate.

But halfway through Tuesday's election, complaints began to circulate that many voters who planned to vote for Gore may have instead marked the ballot for Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan. Democrats are pushing for a new vote in the coastal county, which has a high population of retirees from northern states. With the margin between Bush and Gore down to a few hundred votes, the issue could decide who holds the White House.

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris said Friday the ballot used "fully conforms to Florida law" despite complaints that it confused many voters.

"The Department of State has now reviewed the Palm Beach County ballot. Clay Roberts, director of the Division of Elections, and Deborah Kearney, general counsel for the Department of State, have determined that the design and layout of the ballot does conform to the law of the state of Florida," Harris said in a statement.

A circuit court judge has issued an injunction freezing the certification of ballots there until she can hear arguments in a civil suit filed by two voters.

Does a random sampling of people get the controversial Palm Beach ballot right? CNN's Jeanne Moos finds out (November 10)

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CNN's Susan Candiotti shows why some Palm Beach County residents may have been confused by their ballots (November 8)

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All video since Election Day

Democrats argue that thousands of people may have had their ballots either recorded erroneously or discarded because they punched more than one hole. Palm Beach County election officials said 19,120 ballots were voided because they were double-punched.

And they point to more than 3,000 votes for Buchanan in the heavily Democratic county, a larger number than he received anywhere in the state. The single column of punch holes were aligned with the first hole for Bush, whose name appeared on the left side of the ballot; the second hole was for Buchanan, and the third for Gore.

"Hundreds of people made phone calls to my offices and to other offices in the county complaining they didn't understand the ballot -- that Al Gore's name was second on the ballot but his punch hole was third, which is entirely illegal under election law in Florida and it made it a puzzle rather than a ballot," said Rep. Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat who represents the area in Congress.

Harris said there had been a misconception that Florida law requires voting squares to be to the right of the candidate's name. She said the statute allows that, but does not require it.

According to Harris, the statute says "Voting squares may be placed in front of or back of the names of candidates and ballot information shall be printed in a size and style of type as plain and clear as the ballot spaces reasonably permits." She said the Palm Beach County ballot also confirms to regulations about the way candidates are listed.

"Thus it is the position of the Department of State that the form of the presidential ballot in Palm Beach County conforms in all respects to the requirements of the Florida law," she said.

William Daley, Gore's campaign manager, said the Democratic Party's legal team continues to believe that the ballot violates Florida law.

GOP says ballot no anomaly

Passions are running high in Palm Beach County over the question, and demonstrations organized by both Bush and Gore supporters have taken place daily. Democrats have set up a phone bank through a local law firm to document complaints from voters, and attorneys say said they have taken more than 5,000 calls since Wednesday from people who fear they voted for Buchanan by mistake.

"This was 19,000 people who had their votes discarded. It was entirely confusing not because of the what the people did or didn't do, but because of how the ballot was laid out," Wexler told CNN. "Vice President Al Gore was the second name, but he was not the second hole on the ballot."

Several voters have filed suit saying ballot's design effectively deprived them of their right to vote. Gore campaign officials have said they support Florida voters who are challenging the ballot used in Palm Beach County.

Republicans note that the ballot was approved by county officials -- including a Democratic county elections supervisor -- and that the same type of ballot had been used four years ago.

"Everyone involved in this process prior to the election thought it was clear, and now they're unhappy with the result," said Mark Braden, a former Federal Election Commission member. Anyone who feared they marked the wrong spot could have asked for a new ballot, he said.

Other Republicans, including top Bush strategist Karl Rove, noted that counties across the country use the butterfly ballot -- including Cook County, Illinois, home of Gore campaign chairman William Daley and where his brother, Richard, serves as mayor of Chicago. And Bush campaign officials argue the county is a Buchanan stronghold, since he received about 8,000 votes during a 1996 Republican primary race.

Shirley Greenlaw, center, holds up a sample ballot at a rally in front of the Palm Beach County elections office, Thursday  

Theresa LePore, the county election official who approved the ballot, told the Palm Beach Post shortly after the vote that she would not approve a similar ballot again. Demonstrators calling for a revote protested Thursday outside her office, and she has been named in two lawsuits seeking a new election.

Friends and acquaintances say she has been deeply shaken by the controversy.

"I think it's unconscionable what's happened to her. She is emotionally distraught," said Palm Beach County Commissioner Mary McCarty.

McCarty said LePore is "known for her integrity" among county officials.

"She is a Democrat and I'm a Republican, but she enjoys the support of both parties in this county," she said.

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris said Friday she was sending two officials from her office in Palm Beach County to take part in a manual recount of the vote there. In addition, Harris said she had asked and gotten the assistance of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in providing security for the recount to insure "ballot integrity."

Miami Bureau Chief John Zarella and Reuters contributed to this report.


Friday, November 10, 2000



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