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Recount would not alter Pasco's vote

Hold the magnifying glass at any angle. Pasco County still voted for Al Gore.

A comprehensive ballot review sponsored by the St. Petersburg Times and other media companies affirms that result and reflects the razor-thin margin separating the county's Republican and Democratic votes.

The review examined several scenarios, including one that counted virtually every mark for a candidate and another that took a look at what would have happened if county supervisors conducted the recount ordered by the state Supreme Court last Dec. 8.

Neither would have overturned Gore's 969-vote victory margin in Pasco last November. And neither would have produced the vote jackpot Gore needed to overcome his statewide deficit.

"As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't change anything," said Dr. Marcelino Oliva, the regional director of Gore's campaign in Pasco. "Everybody should just put that election behind."

The lack of a Gore windfall in Pasco comes despite a curious trend: the more Democrats in a precinct, the more ballots miscast.

Elections officials are puzzled by that finding, and vow to do a better job of educating voters the next time out. But they also know this:

It wasn't the most flawed Pasco election in recent years. Not even close. The media review is the first recount to offer a glimpse of the trouble in Pasco, and also the first to examine both undervotes, where a ballot did not register a vote, and overvotes, where it registered votes for more than one candidate in a race.

A group of media companies, including the Times, hired the nonprofit National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago to conduct the review.

Early this year examiners came to the Supervisor of Election's warehouse in Dade City and examined 3,887 Pasco ballots that were cast but not counted in the harried days after the Nov. 7 election.

Some Pasco Republicans criticized the exercise.

"This nation is more unified than ever," said John Renke, a Republican state committeeman. "It merely tries to polarize people rather than bringing them together."

On most reviewed ballots, examiners found no evidence of clear voter intent.

Even using the most forgiving standards, where a dimpled chad counted as a vote, only 325 more votes would have counted. (Recount refresher: Chad are the crumb-size pieces of paper that are punched out when a vote was cast.)

Of those ballots, 167 showed Gore and 158 showed Bush.

The group found less data when it examined ballots using the standards Pasco intended to use for the December hand recount, accepting valid votes only if two or more corners were detached from a chad. That hand recount, ordered by the Florida Supreme Court, instructed county elections supervisors to establish standards and tally the ballots one more time.

When the U.S. Supreme Court halted and threw out the unfinished results of that recount, Pasco officials had only inspected absentee ballots. Bush had picked up five votes and Gore two.

Had it been completed, Bush would have garnered 24 votes in Pasco and Gore 15, the media group's data showed.

A Times computer analysis found that the higher the percentage of Democrats in a Pasco precinct, the higher the percentage of flawed ballots.

Following the election, talking heads frequently discussed minority and elderly people's troubles with ballots. But in Pasco, the link between Democrats and problem ballots was stronger than any of those other connections, the analysis showed.

"I don't have an explanation," said LaVaunne Miller, the chairman of the Democratic Executive Committee for Pasco County. "It's an interesting point."

It's important to note this analysis can't be used to measure the competence of voters. In fact, it doesn't necessarily mean that more Democrats misvoted, but it's the closest anyone can get to finding the root of troubled ballots because ballots are cast secretly.

Even Kurt Browning, supervisor of elections since 1980, can't explain the phenomenon.

Democrats could not be linked to undervoting, but there is a strong connection between the number of Democrats in a precinct and the number of overvotes, the Times analysis showed.

Supporting that analysis: In the five precincts with the highest percent of overvotes, Democrats outnumber Republicans.

Democrats had a stronghold on the county until 1999, when registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats for the first time. At the time of the election, Pasco had 90,172 Republicans and 88,854 Democrats.

Did Democrats take the idea of voting against Bush too far, choosing several candidates?

"Maybe we need to do a better job of instructing our voters," Oliva said. "I think that's going to be taken care of with the new system. I think anybody who can read will be able to use these new machines."

On Oct. 29 Pasco became the first county in the state after the election to receive its new voting system. The computerized touch-screen machines do not allow a voter to choose more than one candidate and they warn a voter if no candidate was selected.

Browning and others have said the equipment will go a long way to solving problems, but some said the same problems will arise in a tight race.

"If we ever get in another close election," Renke said, "we're going to find problems with that (equipment), too."

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