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[note: this article appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on 12/19/00, but was removed from the archive for reasons unknown - perhaps pressure from the Bush campaign to hide the truth.]

Gore would have gained votes in Lake

David Damron, Ramsey Campbell and Roger Roy of the Sentinel Staff

December 19, 2000 8:31 AM EST

TAVARES -- An inspection of more than 6,000 discarded presidential ballots in Lake County on Monday revealed that Vice President Al Gore lost a net 130 votes that were clearly his even in a conservative, GOP bastion that president-elect George W. Bush dominated as a whole.

The tally of uncounted ballots by the Orlando Sentinel was the first outside review to be completed in any Florida county since the U.S. Supreme Court halted a statewide recount on Dec. 9. At that point Bush's ever-fluctuating lead over Gore was just 154 votes -- and the margin might have been shaved to a mere two dozen had the Lake ballots been counted. Similar ballots were counted elsewhere.

The review found 376 discarded ballots in Lake that were clearly intended as votes for Gore: In each case, an oval next to his name was filled in with a pencil and the voter mistakenly filled in another oval next to a spot reserved for write-in candidates, writing in Gore's name or running mate Joe Lieberman's there as well. Another 246 such ballots showing clear votes for Bush and running mate Dick Cheney were thrown out. Had all such ballots been counted, the result would have been a net gain of 130 votes for Gore.

Bush spokesman Tucker Eskew said the Sentinel was engaged in "mischief making" by treating "illegal votes" as legal votes. He argued that a 7-2 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court agreed such tallies should not count, and the Sentinel would only be irresponsibly "inflaming public passions" by playing the numbers up as certain or clear.

"To publish illegal votes as legal votes would be to mislead the readers and the public," Eskew said. "These are illegal votes, and your paper is publishing them as legal votes."

The findings in Lake are just one piece in a statewide mosaic to be assembled in coming weeks and months as outsiders look at ballots that didn't count on Nov. 7. Newspapers including the Sentinel are banding together to inspect many of the approximately 180,000 ballots cast statewide but not tallied in the presidential race either because no vote could be detected by a machine or because voters marked more than one choice for president. A review likely to be much more tedious than the one in Lake began Monday in Broward County, where a study of 6,600 punch-card ballots began.

But the Lake numbers are significant even in isolation. Republicans had argued all along that Gore's push for recounts in heavily Democratic counties like Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward was selective and unfair because it would have skewed results in his favor. But the Sentinel review shows how he might have recovered votes even in a county where Bush beat him by 15 percentage points.

And ballots exactly like those rejected in Lake -- and now called "illegal" by Eskew -- were counted by canvassing boards in places such as Orange and Seminole counties and are now part of the certified totals.

Lake reported 3,114 so-called "overvotes" in its certified presidential results, and county officials had been preparing to evaluate those ballots as part of the recount ordered by the Florida Supreme Court on Dec. 8. By the time the U.S. Supreme Court halted that effort the next afternoon, Lake officials had already sifted through 91,989 ballots cast countywide to segregate the presidential overvotes as well as about 3,000 overvoted ballots rejected by tabulation machines in other races.

It was this pool of more than 6,000 ballots examined by three Sentinel reporters under a Florida public-records law request. Reporters were not allowed to touch ballots, but the newspaper paid for three election workers to spend the day holding them up for inspection. The process was observed by representatives of both parties.

The count went quickly because voter intent was easily detectable. Lake ballots are marked with pencils and tabulated with optical-scanning devices. There are no issues of "dangling chads" or "pregnant chads" to contend with, as there are in counties that use punch-card voting systems.

If Florida's recounts had continued, the Lake County ballots examined by the Sentinel could have swung the presidential election, said Bob Poe, chairman of the state Democratic Party. When the recount was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court, "we were within 113 or 114 votes," Poe said, referring to claims that Gore was gaining more ground even that Saturday before the recount was halted. "This would have put Gore over the top."

Bush's official margin of victory was 537 votes, the number certified by Secretary of State Katherine Harris two weeks before the Florida Supreme Court's last recount order.

GOP partisans say they don't put much stock in any new numbers coming out of Florida now. Bush spokesman Eskew said GOP observers watching the Lake review on Monday dispute the accuracy of the Sentinel's inspection. They claimed that as many as 29 votes counted as write-ins for Gore by the Sentinel were actually written as "Gore and Cheney" or Gore and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader on the ballot.

But such ballots were specifically excluded in the Sentinel's methodology. The review also found -- but did not count -- hundreds more questionable ballots that machines tossed aside or local election officials deemed invalid. Many of these arguably could have been judged as intended for a single candidate.

Some of those were ballots in which the voter penciled in the oval next to the name of more than one candidate, but then tried to erase one. On some ballots, the voter nearly rubbed through the paper trying to erase a vote.

Others voted for more than one candidate, sometimes a half-dozen, then made X's through most of the names. In many cases, it wasn't clear whether they meant to select the candidates who were X'ed out, or those who weren't. On other double-voted ballots, the voters' intention was spelled out, however awkwardly: Some made notations next to one of the votes, including "no," "wrong one," "mistake" and "not."

These hundreds of more marginal ballots -- which the Sentinel did not include in its tally -- also fell heavily in Gore's favor.

Lake also reported 245 "undervote" ballots, in which counting machines could discern no votes. Only 50 of those undervotes were separated by election officials before the federal high court stepped in. An examination of those ballots by the Sentinel found only a dozen that could be counted. Of those, Bush and Gore had six each. But those were not included in the newspaper's tally.

On some, voters had used an ink pen rather than a pencil, and the machines were apparently unable to detect their vote. Others circled the candidate's name or put an X or check mark next to a name or in one case the party designation.

But on most undervote ballots, there were simply no signs of a vote for a presidential candidate. The Lake overvote totals put Republicans in an odd spot. It's one they may often find themselves in during the next few weeks.

But regardless of what the overvotes show, Lake's GOP Party Chairman Dan Semenza said, "they don't count." "You newspaper people are just trying to stir things up."

Elections experts say Democrats are more likely to be undereducated, older, less affluent, or first-time voters -- all groups more prone to muddle a ballot. So Poe said he wasn't surprised that most of the flawed ballots were from Democratic voters, even though Lake is predominantly Republican.

"My people are economically disadvantaged; some people don't read very well," Poe said. Many may be immigrants who don't read or speak perfect English, he said.

The reason these votes weren't counted Nov. 7 is somewhat confusing. On election night, Lake's canvassing board decided in a 2-1 vote not to count ballots that included an unqualified write-in candidate. Bush and Gore were not legal write-ins, they decided.

They made the same decision in the congressional races on the ballot and wanted to be consistent, canvassing-board member and County Judge Donna Miller said. But Catherine Hanson, a Lake canvassing-board member and county commissioner, said Monday that if she could do it all again, in a race this close she would have looked at and counted clear votes that the machines skipped over.

"We were trying to do our best. It was consistent with what we had done in the past," Hanson, a Republican, said Monday. "I wouldn't say it was a mistake, but we would have done it differently if we know what we do now."

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