Close look at ballots finds hodgepodge of flaws

One Florida voter penned a plaintive plea on a presidential ballot: "I forgot my glasses and cannot see this. Please put Bush down for my vote."

That Bay County ballot wasn't counted last year. Nor was a Jackson County ballot on which someone had circled Al Gore's name, aimed huge arrows at it and wrote Gore in the "write-in" slot. That voter's mistake: not darkening the oval beside Gore's name.

Floridians wrongly drew stars, circles and Xs on ballots. They used pens instead of pencils, or red ink instead of blue. They tried to erase errors, or fix them with tape or staples. They tried to vote for pro golfer Tiger Woods and Cuban shipwreck survivor Elian Gonzalez. Many tried in vain-- and in error-- to vote for two, three or even all 10 presidential candidates.

Bizarre ballots, creaky machines, cranky officials and vague laws all contributed to Florida's nightmare election. But a detailed review of 175,010 uncounted ballots by The Times and other media organizations shows how many voters simply messed up.

Researchers from the National Opinion Research Center reviewed 61,190 "undervotes"-- ballots rejected by machines or canvassing boards because no clear choice for president was evident. They also inspected 113,820 "overvotes"-- ballots tossed aside because more than one presidential candidate appeared to be marked.

A surprising number of people-- 28,340, or nearly half the undervotes-- chose no one for president. A few explained why on the ballot by writing, "None of the above," or even, "Terrible choice!"

But the vast majority of the uncounted ballots suggest people tried to vote. Most, in fact, tried several times.

A Franklin County voter, for example, marked nine of the 10 ovals for president on an optical scan ballot, leaving only the Bush selection blank. Was this voter trying to choose anyone but Bush? Or trying to omit everyone but Bush?

Either way, he or she was not alone: 3,616 uncounted Florida ballots had nine filled ovals and a blank for Bush. And 725 others showed nine filled ovals and a blank for Gore.

Florida law last year required county officials to consider a voter's "intent" when reviewing a disputed ballot but gave little guidance about how to do so. The result: Counties disagreed wildly or even changed rules in mid-count.

Take "double-bubble" votes. Optical-scan tabulating machines automatically rejected paper ballots on which a voter properly darkened an oval by a candidate's name but then filled in a second bubble and wrote in the same name on the ballot in the space for write-in candidates.

Although officials in 34 counties subsequently decided the voter's intent was clear in such cases and counted such votes, officials in at least seven counties did not. The result: 1,344 double-bubble ballots were discarded, with Gore the net loser of as many as 288 valid votes.

Escambia County, a Republican stronghold near the Alabama border, went both ways. County machines rejected double-bubble ballots cast in the precincts, costing Gore as many 67 votes. But county officials later decided to count the same type of marks as valid on absentee ballots, many from military personnel, who tended to favor Bush.

To ease voting lines and save the cost of extra ballots-- at 23 cents apiece-- Escambia County officials turned off a counting machine feature that spits out spoiled ballots so voters can correct their mistakes. As a result, 3,680 ballots that were marked more than once were accepted but not counted. However, county officials hand-copied absentee ballots that were torn or not properly marked so that they could be counted. Such actions were legal but show how arbitrary decisions affected the race for the White House.

County canvassing boards differed in key ways.

Some inspected ballots that were rejected by machines. Others inspected only clearly damaged ballots. Some counted absentee ballots without postmarks. Others rejected them. At least two counties put white stickers over obvious mistakes. But as many as two dozen boards declined to examine any of the uncounted ballots.

Florida's 67 counties used four voting systems last year.

Twenty-four counties, including the five most populous, used punch card ballots. Most had tiny numbers, but no names, beside pre-cut ballot perforations called chads. The voter was supposed to slide the ballot into a metal sleeve with the candidates' names, then poke out the corresponding chad with a metal stylus. Several counties used a variation with the candidates' names printed beside the chads.

The counties using punch card systems saw the greatest number of spoiled or under-marked ballots-- 143,235-- as voters failed to poke out a chad properly or poked out too many. Some apparently forced ballots upside-down into sleeves. Many ignored the sleeve and poked out chads with no corresponding candidates. Some ignored the stylus and used pens to circle the numbers.

One county used a paper ballot counted by hand, while another used an old-fashioned lever machine. The other 41 counties used paper ballots counted by optical scan readers. Voters were supposed to darken an oval or connect two parts of an arrow beside a candidate's name. The ballots were fed into machines that read the marks and counted the votes.

"The ballot is very simple if you've ever taken a test in school," said Cynthia Kelly, deputy election supervisor in Leon County.

Yet 31,775 voters using optical scan systems couldn't read the directions, didn't understand them or ignored them.

Instructions on Santa Rosa County ballots seemed clear: Use a No. 2 pencil or special pen in the booth to complete the arrow. The ballot showed before-and-after images of a properly linked arrow, as well as a note advising voters to ask for another ballot if they made a mistake.

But 230 Santa Rosa residents spoiled their ballots anyway. They drew their own arrows, circled or underlined the arrows, or drew Xs between arrows. They also cast invalid votes for Bill Clinton, Mickey Mouse and Charlton Heston.

About 593 optical scan ballots were discarded statewide because voters used pens with red ink, instead of blue ink or pencil. To machines equipped with infrared readers, those voters were using invisible ink.

The highest error rates were in counties that counted ballots in a central location away from polling places, leaving voters no chance to correct mistakes. Of these counties, those that used optical scan machines rejected on average 5.68 percent of their ballots; those using punch card systems disqualified 3.93 percent of their ballots.

But bad ballot design sharply compounded the problem. There were 18 counties that listed the 10 presidential candidates in two columns or on two pages. Confused voters in those counties cast 54,650 multi-marked ballots, or more than half the state's total of spoiled ballots.

Palm Beach County was the worst. Hoping to help elderly voters, the election supervisor, Theresa LePore, created the infamous "butterfly ballot." She listed the candidates in large type on two facing pages. The ballot lined up a single column of punch holes between the pages.

Gore was the second candidate in the wing-like lineup but the third hole to punch. Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan, who was at the top of the next page, had the second hole. The result: 5,302 Palm Beach County voters marked Gore plus Buchanan, while 1,660 chose Bush plus Buchanan. In all, the county registered 29,502 spoiled or empty ballots, the most in the state.

"I call it my perfect storm," LePore said last week. "All the planets were lined up. It all crashed and burned here."

Duval County, which includes Jacksonville, also divided the 10 candidates onto two pages. Its official sample ballot-- printed in the area's largest daily newspaper before the election-- told voters to "vote all pages." Those who did spoiled their ballots.

Duval County voters cast 21,188 overvotes, or almost one-fifth of the state's overvote total. More than half of those voters-- 12,499 people in all-- marked Gore or Bush on the first page and a second candidate on the next page. Assuming those voters actually were trying to vote for the Republican or Democrat, that mistake alone cost Gore a net gain of 3,089 votes.

Political operatives share the blame. "Looking at construction of the ballot wasn't even on the radar screen," acknowledged Mike Langton, the Gore campaign director for northeast Florida.

Sixteen other counties used an optical scan ballot designed by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' office and distributed across the state. But the design was a disaster.

It put Bush, Gore and six other candidates in one column on the left. Two other little-known candidates plus a space for a write-in candidate were listed in the next column. Nothing identified the second column as a continuation of the first. Nor did the ballot say voters should choose only one candidate.

Indeed, "Vote for Group" appeared atop the candidates' names. Election officials differ as to whether the phrase was intended to refer to each set of nominees or to each slate of electors. The ballots didn't say.

Many voters took the phrase literally, darkening ovals for several candidates. Others treated the ballot like a Chinese restaurant menu, choosing one from column A and another from column B. There were 6,701 voters that chose Gore plus Howard Phillips of the Constitution Party or Monica Moorehead of Workers World in the second column. And 3,783 marked Bush and one of the other two candidates. In all, 14,774 two-column ballots were spoiled.

"Too often we have assumed that voters know how to vote," said Doug Lewis, head of the Election Center, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization in Houston. "Now we know that is not true."