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Distinct precincts, similar problems

About 28 miles separate Julia Wright's sand-filled front yard in Belmont Heights and Emil Marotta's golf-course-green grass in Sun City Center.

Wright and Marotta, two voters in the 2000 presidential election, come from totally different election precincts.

Wright's precinct is 89 percent black and 85 percent Democrat. On E Henry Avenue, where she lives, school buses sit on rights of way and teenagers circle streets on bikes. The homes sell for about $60,000.

Marotta's precinct is 98 percent white and 50 percent Republican. On South Pebble Beach Boulevard, where he lives, Cadillacs are parked on paved driveways and retirees dash around on golf carts. The homes sell for an average of $140,000.

As different as these two precincts are, they share a common bond:

Both had among the highest numbers of uncounted votes for president in Hillsborough.

Although one precinct went for Democrat Al Gore and the other swung for Republican George W. Bush, voters in these two precincts cast invalid punch card ballots at an above-average rate.

In Wright's Belmont Heights precinct, about 12 percent of all votes didn't count, making it the worst precinct in the county. In Marotta's Sun City Center precinct, about 3 percent of ballots cast were tossed because voters cast two votes for president or didn't cast a valid vote at all. That still made it the ninth-worst precinct in the county.

Why did such different precincts encounter the same problem?

No one can answer that for sure. But the similarities suggest that voting problems were not solely caused by race, age or income.

A ballot review sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and other media companies shows one thing for certain: Once the damage was done, it was permanent.

The media recount in Hillsborough could only read about 2 percent of the uncounted ballots. Those ballots wouldn't have changed the election's outcome.

If the Hillsborough canvassing board had continued the recount that the U.S. Supreme Court stopped, the Times review shows, Bush would have picked up 106 votes and Gore would have gained 105, giving Bush a net gain in Hillsborough of one vote.

A line of voters out the door

Al Gore considered Wright's neighborhood important enough to send his wife to campaign there in August 2000. Tipper Gore spoke about the Democrats' health insurance plan for children at a clinic four blocks from Wright's house.

In her home, Wright hardly has time to think about politics. She runs a day care from her living room.

"When I grew up, I wasn't educated about how important voting was," Wright said. "Even though I'm 31, I finally get it."

She has voted twice in her life, including casting a ballot for Gore.

Many of her neighbors know even less, she said. Some have trouble reading.

"There are a lot of ignorant people around here," she said. "They're smart with the streets, but ignorant when it comes to this."

The economic struggles of the neighborhood are easy to see. On E Hillsborough Avenue, used car lots carry signs that read "We Finance Anyone" and "Auto Plan: $25 a week." There are pawn shops, motels that rent rooms by the hour and retailers such as "El Cheapo Carpets."

"There are drugs everywhere you go," said Kimberly Montgomery, 31, a hairdresser at Nubian Knots who has never voted. "With my eyes, I see it every day."

Yet, voters here say they turned out for the 2000 election. At the polling station at the Fortieth Street Baptist Church, 6020 N 40th St., "There was a line out the door, down the street and around the block," said Willetta Glenn, 27.

Many voters saw no problems, but others watched people befuddled by the process.

"Mainly, there was just confusion about which candidate to vote for," said Julia Roseborough, a poll clerk. She said voters were asking poll workers for help.

"When I got up there to punch my vote, I had to get someone to explain what was what," said K.D. Johnson, 52.

"For some people, who can't read and write, it's going to be confusing," he added.

The trend held true in Tampa's other black precincts. A Times analysis shows that majority-black precincts accounted for about 15 percent of all uncounted votes cast on Election Day.

The trend is even more dramatic for precincts with high numbers of voters who voted for two candidates for president.

In these areas, Democrats pushed heavily to turn out minority voters. But they didn't think new voters might not know how to a vote, said Darryl Paulson, a government professor at the University of South Florida who will teach a course on the 2000 presidential election.

"They went into the voting booth and had no idea of what to expect," he said.

"Don't forget to vote'

Just as Democrats coveted Wright's precinct, Republicans saw a jewel in Sun City Center, where Marotta lives. In September 2000, Bush campaigned here, telling a packed hall of seniors about his plan to improve medical research.

Republicans outnumber Democrats 2-1 in the retiree community, where residents must be at least 55. Most spent their lives in white-collar jobs.

"The people here in Sun City are very alert," said Harry Holsinger, 82, a retired grocery store owner. "All the people I know are very active."

At the community hall, seniors can take woodcarving lessons, attend line-dancing classes or go to a support group for men with prostate cancer. News racks at a shopping plaza sell the New York Post, the New York Times and Investor's Business Daily.

Before an election, voters such as Jo Regis, 67, will get repeat phone calls reminding her, "Don't forget to vote." She has never missed an election.

Yet, an analysis of the presidential returns puts Marotta's precinct in unusual company. Although Sun City Center had far fewer uncounted ballots than Belmont Heights, it still was in the upper tier.

"I don't know a polite way to say this," said Paulson, the USF professor. "When you are talking about voters in their 70s and 80s, it is much more difficult to perform the simple act of voting, because it is not so simple for them."

Marotta, 62, a retired police officer, noticed that at the polls. One elderly lady left her ballot in the machine, he said.

Precinct clerk Dee Williams, who also heads the Sun City Center Republican Club, saw it when buses arrived from an assisted living facility.

"Some are very, very old and some are very ill," Williams said. "Some of them probably messed up their ballots and didn't realize it."

Many senior citizens get impatient waiting to vote, she said.

"They think the bus will leave without them."

Hillsborough's results

Winner of certified vote: Bush by 11,218 votes.

Outcome under Hillsborough standard: Bush picks up 1 vote.

Registered voters: Democrats, 210,663; Republicans, 175,582.

Voters' race: white, 371,317; black, 55,415; other, 37,814; unknown, 9,863.

Voting machine: Punch card (Votomatic)

Reported undervotes: 5,531 (1.50 percent, state rank 3)

Reported overvotes: 3,641 (0.99 percent, state rank 6)

Undervotes reviewed: 5,534

Overvotes reviewed: 3,638