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When ballots go bad

I cannot bear to throw away the box under my desk, the one with the black-marker label that says "2000 Election."

I slide it out, lift the lid and find dusty contents that tell a story. Old business cards. File folders stuffed with court briefs. Two dozen notebooks. And more.

I think of all the scenes I witnessed during Florida's infamous presidential recount: courtrooms in Fort Lauderdale and Miami; a makeshift ballot counting center near the Palm Beach airport; a raucous Jesse Jackson rally in downtown West Palm Beach; a particular moment outside a Tallahassee library where Leon County judges were counting Dade County ballots on a Saturday, part of a first-ever statewide recount. Minutes after the U.S. Supreme Court halted the effort, a Republican operative snapped his cell phone shut, shouted "Yessss!" and ran off to spread the word.

Four days later, George W. Bush officially edged Al Gore by 537 votes to win Florida and thus the presidency.

Only later would we discover that Gore might have been president had he focused his efforts not on the punch card ballots that define our memories of that election (one word: chads) but on optical scan ballots, the fill-in-the-oval system that also prompted thousands of Floridians to spoil their ballots.

It's the same system, albeit with some improvements, that Florida adopted after its controversial experiment with touch screen voting.

It's how we will vote on Nov. 4.

And that means this: If ever there was a time for voters to be alert at the polls, it is now.

As I flip through old notebooks, long-ago voices come alive.

A circuit judge: "We are trying to determine what someone was thinking based on a piece of paper."

A fine arts major at Florida Atlantic University, who was 33 years old in November 2000: "We have been cheated. … Clearly, Gore won."

The Broward County Republican Party chairman, deriding the recount as a "vote harvest for the Democrats."

It was a scary time when bedrock institutions shook right down to their foundations, much like the present. Today, it's an epic financial crisis that has us wondering whether chaos is just around the corner. Back then it was an epic election — so close that the margin of victory was smaller than the margin of error in Florida's voting system.

Which brings me to the biggest find in my cardboard time capsule: seven CDs containing images of thousands of ballots cast but never counted. Stop and consider the profound sense of loss in those words.

Thousands of ballots cast but never counted.

The discs were part of an effort by a consortium of newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times, to examine the 175,010 ballots that never factored into the presidential race because counting machines could not decipher what voters intended.

The recount will forever be remembered for punch card voting machines and the tiny paper "chads" they produced. We think of big South Florida counties, rich with Democratic votes, where Gore sent lawyers and operatives by the planeload.

In hindsight, however, his best chance was in the 41 counties that had optical scan ballots, which required voters to fill in ovals or arrows. Of particular interest were 3,491 spoiled ballots, most of them optical scan, later examined by the media consortium. The voters who cast these ballots selected either Bush or Gore for president, but also wrote in their candidate's name or otherwise marked the ballot to emphasize their choice.

Their intent could not have been clearer, yet they had turned their votes into "overvotes." The problem was that many of Florida's county election supervisors interpreted the law to say that overvotes should not be counted at all, even in a manual recount — a position that was certainly open to challenge in 2000. The law has since been changed to cut down on overvotes and consider them in recounts.

In any case, 62 percent of the 3,491 overvotes in question were clear selections for Gore, and would have been enough to push him over the top.

Ovals and errors

What you see as you spin through the CDs is a tragedy: voter after voter who showed up to help choose a president but ended up fouling their ballots.

Many misunderstood the instruction, "Vote for Group," which meant they should vote for president and vice president. Instead, people voted for multiple presidential tickets, creating an overvote.

Others voted for two candidates because the presidential race was displayed over two columns and people thought the second column was a separate contest. Yet another kind of overvote.

Some failed to darken an oval in the presidential race but made a different mark that wasn't picked up by counting machines. This created "undervotes," which are just as invalid as overvotes.

Earlier this decade Florida embraced reform, enacting changes to its election law and experimenting for six years with touch screen voting in 15 counties. Now the state approaches another close election with a brand-new voting system requiring all 67 counties to use optical scan ballots.

"I certainly have a level of angst," says Secretary of State Kurt Browning, Florida's chief elections officer. "I'm not sleeping too well at night considering what could go wrong."

But, when it comes to elections, isn't Florida better off than it was eight years ago?

"Yes we are," Browning says.

Gone are the two-column ballot layouts and the "Vote for Group" instructions that sowed so much confusion eight years ago.

In addition, the scanners now required at each polling place will catch overvotes as voters leave. Those who fill in an oval for more than one candidate will see a prompt on the scanner's screen that asks if they want to cast the ballot anyway or address the problem. In the latter instance, they will be offered a clean ballot and given up to two more chances to get it right.

Also, Florida now has a single set of standards for what constitutes a vote on ballots that turn up in recounts. That will be useful in close races where canvassing boards must consider overvotes and undervotes by hand.

The lack of such a standard in 2000 caused confusion and prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to cancel a statewide recount that might have removed lingering doubts about the election.

Still, some problems

Despite the improvements, the new system isn't problem-free.

Polling place scanners are programmed to catch undervotes like the ones we see on so many of the 2000 ballots, but only if the entire ballot is under-voted. If at least one race is voted correctly, the scanner won't raise a red flag.

This will lead to lost ballots, if 2000 was any indication. Back then, many voters correctly marked most of their ballot but mistakenly undervoted in the presidential race. A common mistake was using a mark that couldn't be read by the machines yet still expressed a clear intent. Unless there's a razor-close race and someone counts these ballots by hand, many legitimate selections on undervoted ballots could be lost.

Why? Officials say that stopping voters every time a ballot is partially undervoted is too intrusive and cumbersome. Indeed, as the ballots of November 2000 also show, it is not uncommon for voters to simply skip the presidential race.

In sum, most of the problems that caused the 2000 meltdown have been fixed. The biggest remaining variable is us, and we have our problems.

Browning says his office is pressing county election supervisors to make sure voters know how to darken in an oval, a task that sounds simple until you see what people did to their optical scan ballots in 2000.

In Pinellas, for example, voters are asked to sign their name and fill in an oval on a yellow "ballot ticket" before they vote. Considering that 88 percent of Pinellas voters didn't show when the system debuted in the Aug. 26 primary, many who come to the polls Nov. 4 will be seeing optical scan ballots for the first time.

"If you think for a minute that we're taking that for granted, you're crazy," Browning says. "You cannot assume that voters intuitively know how to darken in an oval. We did that with punching holes. It worked but it didn't work."

Now that the state has done its part, the situation calls for some personal responsibility — perhaps a mind-set like that of Ralph B. Potts, an author, lawyer and Depression-era reformer whose eloquent essay, My Sacred Ballot, calls us to be careful voters.

"The blood of free men stains my ballot sheet," he began. "They did not die that blind partisans, or the reckless, might make a game of free elections."

Election officials suggest a few simple strategies. Think about your choices before you enter the polling place. Study the ballot closely. Stay alert.

Fellow Floridians, we can do better this time.

Times education writer Tom Tobin was part of a reporting team that covered the aftermath of the 2000 election.

When ballots go bad 10/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 9, 2008 3:18pm]

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