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Nov. 8, 2000

BALLOT CONFUSION SPARKS IRE

By STEVE FRIESS
Staff Writer

Staff Writers Brad Hahn, Stella Chavez, Patty Pensa, Kathy Bushouse and Linda Kleindeinst contributed to this report.

Hundreds of irate Palm Beach County voters, fearing they or their friends voted for Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore, besieged the county Election Department on Tuesday with complaints about ballot confusion that could have swayed the race.

In a contest that saw a turnout expected to be about 70 percent with particularly high participation in precincts that are overwhelmingly elderly or black, polls were so busy that voters were still in line a half-hour after the 7 p.m. closing time.

Buchanan received more than 10 votes in more than 40 precincts by press time, all of which were Democratic strongholds that otherwise went overwhelmingly for Gore. In precinct 162G, the Lakes of Delray area where Gore received one of his highest vote totals in all of Palm Beach County, a county high of 47 voters picked Buchanan, too.

Outraged Democratic leaders sputtered about possible lawsuits depending on the statewide and national outcome, noting that the Gore-Buchanan uncertainty was just the biggest headache in a line of glitches. There was also the issue of Senate candidates Bill Nelson and Bill McCollum and Congressional candidates Robert Wexler and Morris Kent Thompson being omitted from some ballots.

In the case of the presidential race, Gore's name was the second one listed on the left side of the ballot with an arrow pointing to the third hole in the column. Legions of voters said they may have mistakenly punched the second hole in the column, which actually was designated for Buchanan, the Reform Party hopeful. Buchanan's name was on the opposite side of the page, with an arrow pointing to the second hole.

"People came out of there, and a lot of us don't know if we voted correctly," said Eleanor Merblum, 82, who voted at precinct 162E, a fire station on Hagen Ranch Road in West Delray. "If Gore doesn't win this district, you know something's wrong."

Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore, a Democrat, insisted any confusion was unintentional and defended the layout of the cluttered ballots as necessary to get all the presidential candidates on facing pages while making the type large enough for voters to read.

"I was trying to make the print bigger so elderly people in Palm Beach County can read it," said LePore, who said she doesn't think the ballot is confusing. "If I'd made it small, they would've said we made the print too small."

There were some other problems on Election Day, with a blank page where Senate candidates, including Bill Nelson and Bill McCollum, were supposed to be. Ballots on four machines in Lake Park did not have the page, LePore said. She said the machines were not used after the problem was found around 7:30 a.m.

The Gore-Buchanan confusion may prompt an inquiry by the Florida Attorney General's office.

"It's been presented to us to take a look at," said Paul Hancock, deputy attorney general in charge of the civil rights division. "The ballot really is confusing."

But state elections officials said they saw no problem with it.

"There's nothing wrong with the ballots in Palm Beach County," said Clay Roberts, director of the state division of elections. "The ballot is laid out according to state law and the voting system they have. It's absurd to think that Theresa LePore is in some conspiracy to take votes away from Al Gore and given them to Pat Buchanan. That's absurd."

Panicked voters started calling Democratic Party offices shortly after the polls opened at 7 a.m., saying they worried their intended votes for Gore went to Buchanan. Calls continued throughout the day, said Cathy Dubin, special assistant to the county's Democratic Party chairwoman.

By 11 a.m., the party dispersed fliers to its 260 poll watchers, warning voters to be careful when voting for Gore.

"They're getting ill, they don't know whether they voted right," said Dubin, adding calls were coming in from all over the county. "Every couple seconds someone is calling one of the phone banks, crying and saying, `I don't know what to do.' It's just a mess."

Elected leaders also were inundated with calls from griping voters. Irving Slosberg, who was formally elected state representative for District 89 in Boca Raton on Tuesday, found a problem at a Delray Beach precinct, where two of 10 voting machines were shut off because they listed the wrong candidates for U.S. House. He alerted incumbent Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Boca Raton, who should have been listed with GOP challenger Morris Kent Thompson.

Slosberg and Wexler went to precinct 168A on South Oriole Boulevard around 11:30 a.m. and found the problem had been addressed. But Wexler said he also received calls from two other south county precincts about similar problems.

"When they realized it, they shut them down," Wexler said. "But that occurred after some people had voted."

More important to Wexler on Tuesday were the dozens of frenzied constituents who called his office to report their confusion when trying to vote for the Gore-Lieberman ticket.

"If me and Pat Buchanan are winning precincts in my district, there is something wrong," Wexler said.

At Temple Emeth, a heavily Democratic and elderly precinct in West Delray, more than 30 ballots were voided by 3 p.m., way more than the one or two voided in a typical election, clerk Ann Swift said.

In West Boynton, Gore workers greeted voters outside to warn them about the ballot.

"Some people are crying and crying over it," Joyce Isbitts said. "This is such a crime. It's outrageous."

###

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