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County voting error is slight

Even as she prepared to retire last December, former Supervisor of Elections Ann Mau bragged that Hernando County's 2000 presidential election was clean.

Sure, Mau acknowledged, there were a handful of fouled ballots _ less than 250. But the margin of error was an insignificant 0.3 percent, she said one day last December during a lull between recounts. And the optical scanning system she pushed for just two years earlier had proved itself worthy, she said.

A year later, it looks like Mau was right.

A ballot review sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and a group of other media companies shows only six more votes would have been reaped had the Hernando canvassing board continued its hand recount last Dec. 9.

Former vice president Al Gore would have gained five votes in Hernando under a standard the county's officials planned to use after the Florida Supreme Court ordered a recount. George W. Bush would have added one vote to his total.

Using another standard, the most inclusive available, Bush would have garnered four votes and Gore would have picked up 14, the media review showed. The majority of the changes would have come in absentee ballots, while the rest appeared singly in nine separate precincts.

A nonprofit group hired by the Times and other news media examined 231 ballots in Hernando County on Feb. 21. It was part of a review of 175,010 ballots that were cast but not counted in Florida during last year's disputed presidential election. The media analyzed a number of recount scenarios, including one that used the standards that individual counties would have employed for the court-ordered recount.

In Hernando, canvassing board members said they wanted to accept ballots that showed the voters' intent. They would have accepted a circled candidate's name, affirmative marks on or near a candidate's name, a partly filled-in bubble or use of an incorrect writing instrument such as a red pen.

In the official certified total, Gore took Hernando County by 1,990 ballots. In the recount scenarios analyzed by the Times, the Hernando winner would have been the same: Al Gore. And, of course, the court-ordered statewide recount was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The results of the media review did not impress local officials.

"It doesn't matter at all," said Frank Colletti, chairman of the Republican Executive Committee. "I thought after the first recount it didn't matter, but we had to go through the process because the process is there. . . . For us to rehash this proves absolutely nothing."

Colletti called the various recounts subjective. He attended each recount conducted in Hernando County, and doubted the numbers presented in this latest media review. He also questioned the report's timing.

"We should be perfectly happy healing our country and defeating our terrorist enemy," Colletti said.

Canvassing board member Chris Kingsley, chairman of the all-Democrat County Commission, said the elections office took all the appropriate steps to ensure that everybody's vote counted.

"I personally don't care at this point," Kingsley said of new recount tallies. "I was confident that we did a good job. . . . It's not like something we're going to undo. We have a president."

Al Jenkins, past president of the Democratic Executive Committee, said he had more concerns about other places in the state, where he contended Gore voters were denied in greater numbers. He argued the time is right to revisit the 2000 election.

"Mr. Bush said let's get back to business as usual," Jenkins said. "Looking at the ballots is business as usual."

If any voting precinct in Hernando County had a problem on Election Day, it was Precinct 40 at Spring Hill United Church of Christ, 4244 Mariner Blvd.

Its problem was "overvotes" _ ballots on which voters marked more than one presidential candidate.

With 14, Precinct 40 had more than double the number of overvotes in any other precinct. Not that the number was significant: It represented less than 1 percent of the ballots cast, and none of the additional votes found in the media review came from Precinct 40.

Precinct worker George E. Dixon recalled laughing with others that it seemed "we were getting all the people that couldn't read or write." Quite a few made multiple errors when filling out the county's optically scanned ballots, on which voters color an oval beside the name of their preferred candidate.

If a voter marked more than one oval in a race, the machine spit the sheet back with an on-screen announcement that a mistake had been made.

One woman got so fed up after messing up three ballots _ the maximum number a voter could get _ that she stormed off, ballot in hand, muttering that "the damn machines don't work," Dixon recalled.

He attributed the handful of troubles to the precinct's 57 percent turnout, much higher than the few other times the county used the optical scanners.

Mau, the county's former elections supervisor, said she did not investigate the Precinct 40 overvotes. She said she found the number interesting, but ultimately insignificant. Current elections supervisor Annie Williams said she also had done nothing relating to the spoiled ballots.

When the county attempted on Dec. 9 to review individual ballots that showed overvotes or undervotes for president, it uncovered few problems.

Fifty-eight community workers were paid $5.15 an hour to separate the ballots by hand. They never finished the job.

Just before 3 p.m. Dec. 9, state Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite called the Elections Office to announce that CNN had reported the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision ending the count.

"We all know what happened with CNN on election night," Mau remarked as she hung up. "We have to wait until we get a court order."

The faxed order from Tallahassee halting the recount arrived about 30 minutes later. Mau kicked off her heels, hopped onto a metal folding chair and shouted that everyone should stop sorting.

Canvassing board chairman Peyton Hyslop planned to continue running the separated ballots through voting machines, to ensure they were the ones identified Election Day. That way, he reasoned, the county would be in a better position if the courts reopened the recount because of another legal challenge.

But Republican activists shouted that stop means stop. One pulled out a cell phone and called a party lawyer in Tallahassee to reiterate the message to Hyslop, who strained to keep a signal long enough to disagree with the legal points raised.

Hyslop had the ballots stored, and the group went home.

_ Staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek covers Hernando County government and can be reached at 754-6115. Send e-mail to solocheksptimes.com.

Hernando's results

Winner of certified vote: Gore by 1,990 votes.

Outcome under Hernando's standard: Gore picks up 4 votes.

Registered voters: Democrats, 38,087; Republicans, 40,760.

Voters' race: white, 88,090; black, 2,841; other, 2,428; unk., 2,190.

Voting machine: Optical (precinct).

Reported undervotes: 101 (0.15 percent, state rank 58).

Reported overvotes: 147 (.022 percent, state rank 51).

Undervotes reviewed: 83.

Overvotes reviewed: 148.

Polling place: Spring Hill United Church of Christ

Party resignation: Republicans, 41.6 percent, Democrats 41.8 percent

Under 30: 17.4 percent

Over 65: 37.9 votes

Al Gore: 834 votes

George W. Bush: 595 votes

Overvotes: 14

Hernando recount: no change

Up next:GAME BALLS

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