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Miami-Dade ballot recount

By Clay Lambert and Bill Douthat, Palm Beach Post Staff Writers

Sunday, January 14, 2001

MIAMI -- George W. Bush would have gained six votes more than Al Gore if all the dimples and hanging chads on 10,600 previously uncounted ballots in Miami-Dade County had been included in the totals, according to a review by The Palm Beach Post.

That result would have been a hard blow to Al Gore's hopes of claiming the presidency in a recount. Before the vice president conceded last month, the Gore camp had expected to pick up as many as 600 votes from a Miami-Dade recount -- barely enough to overtake Bush's razor-thin Florida lead. Instead, The Post's review indicates Gore would have lost ground.

If everything were counted -- from the faintest dimple to chads barely hanging on ballots -- 251 additional votes would have gone to Bush and 245 more would have gone to Gore, The Post review showed.

The review, concluded last week, also showed that the vast majority of ballots rejected as under-votes (meaning there was no clear punch for any candidate) when counted by machine appeared, in fact, to cast no vote for president. About 7,600 under-votes had no mark at all on the presidential column, or in rare cases included multiple votes that defied judgment. Most of the voters who did not indicate a vote for president did punch choices in other races.

But at least 2,257 voters apparently poked at their ballot cards without properly inserting them into the voting machines. Miami-Dade County Elections Supervisor David Leahy said that's because the voters failed to follow directions.

Of these miscast votes, 302 more would have gone for Gore than Bush, under Leahy's theory.

Even if those votes had been cast correctly, however, it would not have changed the outcome of a presidential election that turned on 537 votes for Bush in Florida.

"In other words, Dade was a wash," said Ivy Korman, director of special projects for the Miami-Dade County supervisor of elections. "And, knowing our county the way that we do, that is why we didn't feel the need to do a manual recount."

Gore easily carried the county by more than 39,000 votes on Nov. 7. The certified results in Miami-Dade were 328,808 for Gore and 289,533 for Bush, according to the Florida secretary of state's office.

Counts' results will vary

The Miami-Dade canvassing board abandoned its manual recount Nov. 22 after counting 140 of the county's 616 precincts. And four teams of judges in Leon County were about halfway through Miami-Dade's disputed ballots Dec. 9 when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped all recounts in Florida. No results were released from the judges' partial recount.

The Post's review of all the under-votes is the first of several planned or under way. Later this month, a consortium that includes The Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times plans to begin looking at the under-votes in each of Florida's 67 counties. The Miami Herald and USA Today are doing a similar review. The Herald/USA Today review, using accountants, is expected to be finished in Miami-Dade this week.

Because of varying judgments by reviewers on how each ballot is marked and the inevitable human error that occurs when thousands of ballots are examined by hand, results of the reviews by newspapers are almost certain to differ.

Furthermore, experts say no count -- whether done by hand or by machine -- will ever be exact. Computer industry consultants estimate the error rate for counting punch cards could run as high as 1 percent and varies with the number of times the cards are handled.

(For example, results changed in 313 of Palm Beach County's 531 precincts when the ballots were counted by hand.)

In the 37-day contest of Florida election results, Gore had hoped to find a mother lode of votes in heavily Democratic South Florida to overtake Bush. A manual recount in Broward County added 567 votes for Gore. Although it did not meet the deadline, the manual recount in Palm Beach County would have added 174 votes.

The Bush campaign contended the recounts were unnecessary because Bush won on Nov. 7 and in the mandated machine recount conducted Nov. 8.

Pattern in mis-punches?

In the Miami-Dade under-vote, the largest group of marked ballots was the 2,257 cleanly but inaccurately punched cards. During the media review, Leahy, the elections supervisor, demonstrated how many voters might have punched odd-numbered chads, which didn't correspond to any of the 10 candidates for president named on the ballot.

Miami-Dade elections officials assigned only even numbers to the presidential candidates -- No. 4 for Bush, No. 6 for Gore, No. 8 for Libertarian Harry Browne and so on.

Leahy showed that when punch cards were laid over the ballot booklets instead of inserted into the machine the arrow corresponding to Bush appeared to point to the No. 5 chad rather than the proper No. 4 chad. Likewise, the arrow for Gore appeared next to the No. 7 rather than the correct No. 6.

The Post found 1,023 cleanly punched holes at No. 7; Leahy speculates these may have been attempts to vote for Gore. There were 721 clean punches at No. 5; these could have been attempts to vote for Bush. The Post also found 129 more odd-numbered marks that were not clean punches, such as dimpled or partly detached chads.

Miami-Dade elections officials have been aware since November that a small percentage of voters wrongly punched odd-numbered chads. The Post's tally of 2,257 clean punches in the presidential column is about one-third of 1 percent of the 653,963 ballots cast in the county.

Korman said the instructions were clear and appeared in both English and Spanish on ballot cards and machines.

"You can lead some people to water, but you can't make them drink," she said.

Larry Klayman is chairman of Judicial Watch Inc., a governmental watchdog group conducting its own review of under-votes in eight Florida counties.

"These are interesting findings and point to the need for a new system," Klayman said. "The system we have is broken."

Klayman said his organization would intervene on behalf of a lawsuit filed Thursday by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union, claiming that irregularities in Florida's vote amount to a denial of the equal protection guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Question of equal protection?

Judicial Watch supports the claim that the NAACP and ACLU make regarding equal protection, but it does not support their claim that there is also evidence of racial discrimination in the outcome of the presidential election.

The Post review, however, found that the rate of voting mishaps was greater in black-majority precincts than elsewhere. While 1.6 percent of all votes cast countywide for president were not counted because they were considered under-votes, that rate was 2.7 percent in the 112 precincts with a black majority.

In the 24 precincts where a majority of voters were 65 or older, 2.1 percent of the voters cast under-votes, while 1.4 percent of the voters in the 217 Hispanic-majority precincts delivered under-votes.

For example, in Precinct 513 in northwest Miami-Dade, where blacks make up 96.3 percent of the registered voters, 7 percent (28 voters) miscast ballots.

Thomasina Williams, an attorney representing the NAACP and other civil rights groups suing the state and seven counties over the election, said black precincts in Miami-Dade could have had more problems because they may have been using older, less reliable voting machines and were assigned poll workers with less training.

"Predominantly black areas fall prey to that because they don't get the same service," said Williams, who filed suit in federal court in Miami Wednesday asking that the punch-card system be eliminated.

Miami-Dade elections officials were not available Friday to comment on Williams' claims.

The Post also found some voters used pens or pencils to shade or circle their choice for president. The outcome in such cases was a tie: 23 votes each for Bush and Gore.

Also among the ballots were 24 cleanly punched votes for Bush and 35 for Gore that had not been counted by the machines. One theory: The chads had been dislodged sometime after the initial machine count and during the seven occasions Leahy estimates in which the ballots were handled since the election.

Media review called waste

Republicans are conducting their own review of disputed ballots in Florida. Mark Wallace, a Miami attorney representing the state's Republican Party, said the media's review is a waste of time.

"It doesn't matter what the outcome is," he said. "The fact that we gained votes is fine and dandy, but the things you (The Post) counted didn't correspond with the law."

Calls to the Democratic Party were referred to the Democratic National Committee, which did not immediately return calls.

Staff writer Brian Crecente, database editor Christine Stapleton and clerk Janis Fontaine contributed to this story.