KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Florida voters who spoiled their ballots because they punched more than one presidential candidate's name were three times as likely to have included Vice President Gore as one of their choices as George W. Bush, a Washington Post analysis has found.
A review of computerized records for 2.7 million votes in eight of Florida's largest counties offers new details of how voters erred. It reveals that, while both Vice President Gore and George W. Bush each may have lost votes that were intended for them, Democratic voters were significantly more likely to have invalidated their ballots than Republican voters.
According to the Post's analysis, the biggest problem for Gore was in "overvotes," ballots invalidated because voters indicated multiple choices for president. Although the number of ballots thrown out for that reason was known shortly after the Nov. 7 election, The Post analysis for the first time shows the voting patterns contained in those ballots. Gore was by far most likely to be selected on invalid overvoted ballots, with his name punched as one of the choices on 46,000 of them. Bush, by comparison, was punched on 17,000.
Democratic votes also appear to have been disproportionately affected because of Palm Beach County's infamous "butterfly ballot." The study found that the 8,000 voters whose ballots were thrown out because they chose Gore and one of the two other presidential candidates listed near him voted more than 10 to 1 Democratic in the U.S. Senate race.
The imperfections of Florida's voting system have been clear since shortly after Election Day, when problems with a confusing ballot design in Palm Beach County and difficulties with the punch card voting system used in 26 of the state's 67 counties raised questions about who had won a majority of Florida's 6 million votes.
The Post review indicates that problems with the voting machinery -- or voters' failure to use it properly -- resulted in thousands of voters who went to the polls only to have none of their ballots in any races counted. Thousands more may have mistakenly voted for a presidential candidate other than the one they wanted because they failed to follow instructions on how to insert the punch cards into the voting machines.
President Bush and congressional leaders pledged this week to study election reform because of the Florida failures. The Post findings suggest that the problems are not just hanging chads or outdated technology, however, but tens of thousands of voters who misunderstood how voting works, were confused by the instructions and did not receive sufficient help in the process.
A consortium of media organizations, including The Washington Post, will next month begin an examination of all votes statewide that did not register when passed through an automatic counting machine. A similar, separate count by the Miami Herald is underway.
Unlike those efforts, which will be based on a hand examination of the physical ballots, The Post analysis of the eight counties was based on an examination of the computer record made for each ballot when it passed through the automatic counting machines. These mechanical readers shine light through each card to detect which holes have been punched out.
Although the files -- which have no voter identification -- include the details of every mark detected by the equipment, revealing the exact pattern on each ballot, they do not contain information about marks that the machines could not read. This includes such such things as dimples or partially detached chads that were the subject of so much attention.
The Post requested records from the 12 counties in Florida that use punch cards and counting software that keeps records of each ballot. Because this kind of information has not been analyzed before and is not permanently stored, some of the counties did not have the records, and not all counties had records for every precinct. In the end, The Post obtained the computer files from Miami-Dade, Broward (Fort Lauderdale), Palm Beach, Hillsborough (Tampa), Pinellas (St. Petersburg), Marion (Ocala), Highlands and Pasco counties.
Four of the counties voted for Bush and four for Gore, but large Gore victories in Broward and Palm Beach counties made the overall totals for the counties examined favor Gore by 56 to 42 percent. The Post findings were consistent, however, no matter which candidate won the county. Even in the counties won by Bush, Gore was included on more of the overvote ballots than Bush, and more of the voters who spoiled their ballots in the presidential race voted Democratic in the U.S. Senate. The analysis showed this pattern in all eight counties.
The Post found that more than 15,000 voters cast no recorded votes -- for president or any other office. This suggests widespread problems with the voting equipment, or a situation in which thousands of voters went to the polls, waited in line, signed in to get their ballots, went into the voting booth and turned in their ballots without making a single vote.
"We've seen that for years -- a blank ballot with no votes on it -- but people didn't believe us," said Deborah Clark, supervisor of elections in Pinellas County.
Bush and Gore may have both lost thousands of votes because voters did not insert the ballots into the voting machines. The Post found 8,000 ballots with punches in holes that are blocked when the punch card is inserted into the equipment.
Gore may have lost even more votes from those whose ballots were not counted because they reflected two votes for president. In the eight counties examined, people who overvoted for president but cast a valid vote in the U.S. Senate race favored the Democrat 70 to 24 percent.
In almost every county, the pairing of Gore with each of the more obscure candidates garnered more votes than the lesser-known candidate got alone. In the most prevalent combination, more than 6,800 voters punched holes for both Gore and Libertarian Harry Browne. Browne's name appeared right after Gore on the ballots in seven of the counties.
The next most common choice was Gore and Reform Party nominee Patrick J. Buchanan, with 6,300 ballots. That combination was most prevalent in Palm Beach County, where the butterfly ballot positioned Gore's spot between Buchanan and Socialist David McReynolds.
The Palm Beach County voters who punched either Gore-Buchanan or Gore-McReynolds voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the U.S. Senate race, favoring Bill Nelson over Republican Bill McCollum, 6,645 to 632.
Many of the obscure candidates had thousands more punches on invalid overvotes than on valid ballots. Socialist Workers candidate James Harris won only 300 votes in the eight counties, but his name was punched on more than 12,600 overpunched ballots, or 42 spoiled punches for every legitimate vote.
An additional 5,800 Floridians punched their ballots for both Bush and Gore. This group of voters was 10 times the size of Bush's winning margin in Florida.
Voting experts suggest that the apparent tendency of Democratic voters to have a higher spoilage rate on their ballots than Republican voters is due to the fact that Democrats, through an intense get-out-the-vote drive targeted at minority communities, managed to motivate many newer and first-time voters who were not familiar with the voting equipment. Democratic voters were also more likely to be concentrated in counties that did not check ballots for errors in the precinct. Republican counties were more likely to have that second-chance technology to correct their ballots.
The problems found by The Post have been familiar to Florida elections officials for years, though officials said ballot errors were higher last year because of the 10 presidential candidates listed, which they said led to more accidental overvotes and caused problems in ballot design.
"All the voters who did all these strange things are a very small slice of society, but just because this election was so close, that small slice was life or death for the candidates," said Paul Craft, manager of the voting equipment section of the Florida Division of Elections.
Now that the public is aware of these mistakes, they will be changed, Miami-Dade Election Supervisor David Leahy said. "The punch card machines are dead," he said. "So much damage has been done that people have lost faith in it. It has to be replaced. The question is, with what?"
Among voters who invalidated their presidential ballot by making more than one choice, 75 percent successfully cast a valid vote for U.S. Senate. Clay Roberts, head of the Florida Division of Elections, said he thinks that a lot of undervotes and overvotes are intentional.
"There are people who overvote on purpose, I'm convinced," he said. "Are they all intentional? No. Some are accidental. People who are engaged in politics can't understand why people would overvote. But there are valid reasons for undervotes and overvotes. For some voters, that undervote or overvote is their decision."
© 2001 The Washington Post Company