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Ballots Confuse Palm Beach Voters

November 9, 2000

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Election officials on Wednesday disqualified more than 19,000 ballots in a Florida county where confusion over the punch card system led to a flood of complaints and a lawsuit.

Three people filed suit Wednesday seeking a new election in Palm Beach County, claiming the punch-card ballot was so confusing that they accidentally voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Vice President Al Gore.

Hundreds of Gore supporters also called the county elections office Wednesday, saying they feared they had mistakenly voted for Buchanan.

Lawyers for the Democratic Party said that the design of the Palm Beach County ballot is illegal and that they may ask for a re-vote. But no immediate action was taken by the party.

Election officials said 19,120 ballots in the county were nullified because they showed more than one vote for president.

Buchanan got 3,407 votes for president in the heavily Democratic county Tuesday, more than he received in any other Florida county, according to unofficial returns.

Statewide, Gore was behind George W. Bush by fewer than 1,800 votes, and Florida held the key to the national race.

``It was so hard to tell who and what you were voting for. I couldn’t figure it out, and I have a doctorate,″ voter Eileen Klasfeld said.

Two larger counties south of Palm Beach both had much lower Buchanan results _ 789 in Broward County and 561 in Miami-Dade County. In Duval County, a much more conservative county in northeast Florida, only 650 Buchanan votes were cast.

The confusion apparently arose from the way Palm Beach County’s punch-card style ballot was laid out for the presidential race. Candidates are listed in two columns, with holes down the middle between the columns, to the right or the left of each candidate’s name.

The top hole was for Bush, who was listed at top left; the second hole was for Buchanan, listed at top right, and the third hole was for Gore, listed under Bush on the left. Arrows linked the names with the proper hole, but some voters feared they had missed the arrows and punched the wrong hole.

``When ballots are placed in the slide for voting, Al Gore and Joe Lieberman are the second names on the ballot, but the third hole to punch,″ Florida Democratic Party Communications Director Bill Buck said in a statement.

But Clay Roberts, director of the Florida Department of Elections, said the problem was exaggerated.

``I don’t think they are confused. I think they left the polling place and became confused. The ballot is very straightforward. You follow the arrow, you punch the location. Then you have voted for who you intend to elect,″ said Roberts, a Republican appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush, George W.’s brother.

Florida law specifies that voters mark an X in the blank space to the right of the name of the candidate they want to vote for.

Jeff Liggio, a lawyer for county Democrats, called the ballot illegal. ``Right means right, doesn’t it? The state law says right. It doesn’t mean left,″ he said.

Don A. Dillman of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, who has done research on the design of paper questionnaires, called the ballot confusing.

``I’ve never seen one set up like this,″ Dillman said from Pullman, Wash. ``It’s very confusing the way they have put things on the right side together with things on the left side. I can see why there might be a problem. If you passed over the first candidate to go for the second candidate, it’s logical that you’d punch the second hole.″

Outside the Palm Beach elections office, about 50 outraged citizens carried signs protesting the ballots.

``It was an injustice. Thousands of people were confused,″ said 42-year-old Niso Mama. ``We have to have another election in this county.″

In Pinellas County, meanwhile, election officials ordered a recount of the recount late Wednesday, saying some ballots weren’t properly counted.

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