MANGLED BALLOTS RESURRECTED THOUSANDS OF SPOILED VOTES WERE COUNTED -- THANKS TO A HELPING HAND. Series: EXPOSING THE FLAWS 1 in an occasional series on Florida's election
Orlando Sentinel; Orlando, Fla.; May 7, 2001; David Damron and Roger Roy Sentinel Staff Writers;

Abstract:
PHOTO 2: A puzzling endeavor. Election worker Fred Altensee demonstrates how officials piece together a machine-shredded ballot at the Orange County elections office. Damaged ballots are relatively common, especially among absentee ballots, which get folded, creased and torn many times as they are fed into counting machines. In these cases, election officials attempt to determine the `intent' of the voter. If the intent is deemed clear, a duplicate ballot is filled out and counted. PHOTOS BY ROBERTO GONZALEZ/ORLANDO SENTINEL BOX: About this report This is one in an ongoing series examining problems in Florida's historic 2000 presidential election as well as efforts to reform the voting system. The Sentinel is also participating in a consortium of news-media organizations that is systematically reviewing the 180,000 ballots cast but not counted in that election. That project is still under way.

Full Text:
(Copyright 2001 by The Orlando Sentinel)

Roger Roy can be reached at rroy@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420- 5436. David Damron can be reached at ddamron@orlandosentinel.com or 352-742-5920.

PENSACOLA -- One of the best-kept secrets in Florida's disputed 2000 presidential election is that thousands of ballots that ultimately counted were never even filled out by voters.

With no outside scrutiny, county officials on Election Day made new copies of at least 10,000 mismarked or torn absentee ballots that the counting machines initially couldn't read. More than 2,400 absentee ballots were duplicated in Escambia County alone -- about 11 percent of all absentee votes cast in that county.

Among the 10,000 ballots duplicated statewide were untold numbers of ballots that machines couldn't read but that election officials said showed "clear intent" in the presidential race or other contests. By duplicating those ballots to make them machine- readable, officials saved many from being thrown out in a presidential race decided by just 537 votes.

This systematic effort -- blessed by Florida law but never raised in the pitched election-recount fight -- challenges the successful GOP courtroom argument that without clear standards, humans should not be looking for voter intent where machines couldn't find any.

In fact, election workers did just that -- and long before a recount fight made each ballot a legal battleground. Ironically, the process probably helped the candidate who would later argue so vehemently against manual recounts -- George W. Bush.

MOSTLY ABSENTEE BALLOTS

An Orlando Sentinel analysis of the absentee-duplicating process across Florida found it was concentrated in the 26 counties with the same optical-scan voting technology state lawmakers decided last week to require statewide. With tabulating machines based in polling places, the system gives voters a second chance to correct ballot mistakes on the spot.

All but a handful of the ballots saved by election workers in those 26 counties were absentee ballots -- a category of votes that Bush dominated by a near 2-to-1 margin. But because the duplicating process is so loosely documented, county workers can't say how many of the rescued votes were in the presidential race and how many were in other races.

"This is a startling and important development," said Kendall Coffey, a leading recount lawyer for Democrat Al Gore. Coffey said he had not heard of any widespread duplications being done to save flawed ballots.

Though he agreed it surely helped Bush, he didn't condemn it. The counties did, albeit selectively, stick to the principle of "count every vote," he said.

But on a different level, Coffey said, such a vote-salvaging effort was basically what the Florida Supreme Court ordered on Dec. 8, when it told counties to look at uncounted ballots and tally those showing "clear intent."

Coffey contends that knowing about the duplication of rejected ballots surely would have bolstered Democratic arguments to keep the hand counts going.

The fact was, hardly anyone knew. "I never heard this was going on until now," Coffey said.

Of course, the state court order never played out because the U.S. Supreme Court stopped it the next day and ultimately ruled that such a recount would deny equal protection to all voters. Justices cited a lack of uniform statewide standards as a main reason to shut the hand count down.

PRACTICE IS LEGAL IN FLORIDA

Bush recount lawyer Barry Richard discounted the importance of knowing about the duplicated absentees last week, saying it would have had little impact on judges deciding vote cases. He too, was unaware it had been done.

Still, even had it been known, "I think the same legal result would have occurred," Richard said.

Duplicating ballots is perfectly legal. State rules have always required that duplicates be made for unreadable ballots. A Volusia County vote fraud case reaffirmed the practice.

In a 1996 sheriff's race, Gus Beckstrom filed a suit challenging his 1,100-vote loss to Sheriff Bob Vogel. Beckstrom argued that fraud and negligence occurred in counting more than 27,000 absentee ballots -- many of which were marked over again by election officials because they were illegible to computer scanners.

The state Supreme Court ruled that no fraud was involved, and said Vogel deserved to win. But the case drove home the point that county officials cannot alter the original ballot to save it -- they must create a duplicate ballot instead.

The reason officials in most of the 26 counties with precinct tabulators gave for duplicating so many absentees is that they wanted mail-in ballots to be counted as carefully and fairly as those cast in polling places.

The voting machines in these precincts are designed to immediately reject unreadable ballots so voters can fix them. But absentee voters aren't around to make corrections when officials find mistakes on Election Day.

To make matters worse for absentee ballots, they arrive folded and stuffed into envelopes. The folds sometimes cause ballots to get caught in counting equipment.

So counting machines might turn them into accordions. Or, like some in Orange, they were mangled into puzzle pieces for workers to put back together and duplicate.

Still, they get counted. However, in many cases, absentees were in good shape physically, but badly mismarked by voters.

Some voted for too many candidates in a race -- a clear "overvote" -- or made no marks at all -- a clear "undervote." Even duplicated, such ballots could not be counted. But an overvote ballot where two ovals were marked but one of those was erased would usually pass the "intent" test with officials. So they would create the duplicate ballot with only one oval filled, and it would be fed through the machine and counted as a vote.

If the ballot was too marginal for election workers to make the call, it would be passed on to the canvassing board.

"The absentees are scrutinized to make sure every vote counts," Walton County Elections Supervisor Melissa Beasley said. "It's a very lengthy process."

ABSENTEES A GOP PRIORITY

In Florida, Republicans mounted an aggressive absentee-ballot effort and targeted voters with personal appeals from Gov. Jeb Bush and other GOP luminaries.

State Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas boasted at one time that the GOP held at least a 100,000-ballot advantage in requested absentees over Democrats.

And these tedious ballot-salvaging expeditions occurred almost exclusively within that pool of mostly Republican voters.

So the Election Night vote-saving effort was surely adding to Bush's eventual lead at the same moment TV networks were declaring and retracting winners in Florida's razor-thin race.

Given that, Democratic leaders still maintain they would not have mounted challenges to throw out these salvaged absentees, had they known they existed.

"Whether it favors one candidate or not, every vote should count," said state Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe. "The whole question in all of this was always fairness anyway."

STANDARDS VARIED WIDELY

Even within the 26 counties that made the extra effort to salvage absentee votes, standards and procedures varied.

Orange County officials rarely looked for voter intent in the absentee pile. They only did it in cases when a single candidate was picked at the top of the ballot and again as a write-in candidate. But while such "write-in overvotes" were salvaged in Orange, Columbia County officials refused to accept them -- even though state law says they are valid votes.

Seminole and Alachua County looked at all overvotes and duplicated those with clear intent. But exactly what amounted to "intent" on Election Night differed from one county to the next.

Sometimes the contradictions came within a single county. In Escambia, standards for what counted as a vote differed between absentees and votes cast at polling places.

Absentee ballots that contained write-in overvotes were duplicated and counted. Identical ballots from precinct polling places were also reviewed by election workers -- but these were thrown out as overvotes.

Among those rejected ballots from Escambia precincts were 118 legally valid votes for Gore and 49 for Bush, a Sentinel examination found. Counting these ballots would have trimmed 69 votes from Bush's 537-vote margin of victory.

Escambia Election Supervisor Bonnie Jones said the double- standard for write-in overvotes was adopted because names of the qualified write-in candidates are posted in polling places. Absentee voters who wouldn't see those postings are at a disadvantage, said Jones, a longtime Democrat now registered with no party affiliation.

Like other counties that duplicated ballots, Escambia officials can't say how many went to a particular candidate, or even a particular contest on the ballot. Whatever the number, the votes almost certainly benefited Bush, who won Escambia's absentees by a three-to-one margin.

Escambia's "duplicating team" of more than a dozen poll workers went to great lengths -- working until 2 a.m. -- to make sure their absentee voters got a second or third look to have a mistaken ballot corrected and duplicated.

But the same election officials opted not to program their precinct voting machines to give voters a second chance. They decided it would cause long lines and cost them too many extra ballots -- valued at 23 cents apiece.

Finding exactly how many votes were saved in the ballot- duplicating efforts and checking the accuracy of the process would be a massive undertaking. An inspection would have to match up thousands of original ballots, which are voided and set aside, with their corresponding duplicates, which are mixed in with the rest of the votes.

In Bay County, where 1,478 absentee ballots were duplicated, that difficult job would be even harder. Election officials there sealed the original ballots in envelopes and refuse to open them now.

So one of the best kept secrets of Election Day 2000 may just stay that way.

[Illustration]
PHOTO 2: A puzzling endeavor. Election worker Fred Altensee demonstrates how officials piece together a machine-shredded ballot at the Orange County elections office. Damaged ballots are relatively common, especially among absentee ballots, which get folded, creased and torn many times as they are fed into counting machines. In these cases, election officials attempt to determine the `intent' of the voter. If the intent is deemed clear, a duplicate ballot is filled out and counted. PHOTOS BY ROBERTO GONZALEZ/ORLANDO SENTINEL BOX: About this report This is one in an ongoing series examining problems in Florida's historic 2000 presidential election as well as efforts to reform the voting system. The Sentinel is also participating in a consortium of news-media organizations that is systematically reviewing the 180,000 ballots cast but not counted in that election. That project is still under way.


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Sub Title: [METRO Edition]
Column Name: EXPOSING THE FLAWS
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