Published on Thursday, November 9, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
19,000 Votes Barred in Democratic County
Hundreds Say They May Have Marked Ballot Wrong
by John Wildermuth and Marc Sandalow
As the recount of the votes that will determine the nation's next president began yesterday, Florida election officials announced that they had disqualified more than 19,000 votes in a heavily Democratic county.

Republican George W. Bush declared a cautious victory, and Democrat Al Gore warned against a ``rush to judgment,'' as Florida officials promised to complete the recount by late today.

Late yesterday, with 32 of Florida's 67 counties reporting their recounts, Gore had gained 843 votes, trimming Bush's lead to 941 votes.

But the continuing count isn't the only electoral concern in the nation's fourth-largest state. Complaints about a confusing ballot in Palm Beach County erupted after officials in West Palm Beach said 19,120 ballots were disqualified on election night because they showed votes for more than one presidential candidate.

``That total is a high number,'' said Palm Beach County Commissioner Carol Roberts, a member of the board conducting a recount of the presidential race. Only 3,783 voters made the same mistake on the U.S. Senate section of the ballot.

Hundreds of Gore supporters called the county elections office, saying the punch-card ballot was so confusing that they thought they might have accidentally voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Gore, while others apparently tried to correct their mistake by punching in a second candidate.

Buchanan received 16,962 votes statewide in Tuesday's election, but 3,407 of those -- about one-fifth -- came from Palm Beach County alone. By comparison, Buchanan received 561 votes in Miami-Dade and 789 in Broward County.

``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.

Three people have sued, seeking a new vote in the county.

Another problem surfaced in Pinellas County, including St. Petersburg, which will have to redo its recount because a poll worker failed to run an unknown number of ballots through its computer yesterday, the county supervisor of elections said. The county retracted its original announcement that Gore had garnered 404 votes and Bush dropped by 61 votes in its recount.

The complaints prompted outrage from Republicans, who argued that once the votes were cast, there was nothing that could be done.

``The Democrats have Plan A, which is the recount,'' Peter May, a Republican National Committee spokesman, said on CNN last night. ``Then there's a Plan B and a Plan C, and each one comes with more lawyers attached to it.''

Both Bush and Gore nervously awaited news in a bizarre waiting game that has no precedent.

``If ever there was a doubt about the importance of exercising democracy's most fundamental right -- the right to vote -- yesterday put it to rest,'' President Clinton said from the White House lawn. ``No American will ever be able to seriously say again, `My vote doesn't count.' ''

A convoy of television satellite trucks and an army of reporters stood outside Tallahassee's 22-story New Capitol building in this sleepy southern city that is suddenly the focus of the world's attention.

The latest Florida totals, including all absentee ballots received so far, showed Bush with 2,909,135 votes and Gore with 2,907,351 -- a difference of 1,784 in a state with 8.75 million registered voters.

Nationally, Gore had a 169,542 vote advantage out of the 101 million votes cast. If that number holds, it will be the narrowest margin since 1960, when John Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon by 110,000 votes.

``I am aware that this is an extraordinary moment in our democracy,'' said Gore in a makeshift media center in a Nashville hotel.

Gore called Bush to concede defeat early yesterday morning after several television networks declared Bush the winner, only to call Bush back within the hour when he learned that the results were still up in the air.

``Let me make sure I understand,'' Bush protested, his victory speech in hand, according to an Associated Press report. ``You're calling me back to retract your concession?''

Replied Gore: ``You don't have to get snippy about this.''

If Bush wins the presidency based on Florida's 25 electoral votes, he will be the first to triumph without winning the popular vote since 1888.

Though many Democrats expressed frustration over that possibility, Gore made it clear yesterday that he will not challenge Bush's victory if he wins the necessary 270 electoral votes.

``Under our Constitution, it is the winner of the Electoral College who will be the next president,'' Gore said. ``Our Constitution is the whole foundation of our freedom, and it must be followed faithfully,'' he said. ``We are now, as we have been from the moment of our founding, a nation based on the rule of law.''

Nevertheless, the vice president said questions about the vote count ``must be resolved . . . deliberately, and without any rush to judgment.''

Bush, looking tired after only 3 1/2 hours of sleep, sounded a more confident refrain, predicting that victory would soon be his.

``It's going to be resolved in a quick way,'' Bush said. ``I'm confident that the secretary (Dick Cheney) and I will be the president-elect and the vice president-elect.''

Using phrases most often used in a victory speech, Bush reached out to Gore supporters and said: ``I want to assure them that should the election go the way that we think it will, that I will work hard to earn their confidence.

``America has a long tradition of uniting once elections are over,'' Bush said. ``Secretary Cheney and I will do everything in our power to unite the nation, to call upon the best, to bring people together after one of the most exciting elections in our nation's history.''

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a brother of the GOP candidate, removed himself from the recount process to avoid any questions about a conflict of interest.

``We thought it would be close. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine it would be this close,'' Jeb Bush told reporters in Tallahassee.

The new count in Florida's 67 counties was triggered by state law governing elections decided by less than one-half of 1 percent. Veterans of the process said it is unusual -- though not unheard of -- for one side to pick up enough votes to make a difference in the outcome.

In each county, a county judge, the chairman of the county commission and the local elections supervisor recounted the votes by feeding punch cards through tabulation machines three times. The makeup of the canvassing board is supposed to insulate the process from politics, said state elections director Clay Roberts. The process is expected to be completed this afternoon.

Two former secretaries of state -- Warren Christopher on behalf of Gore and James Baker for Bush -- headed to Florida to monitor the election activities.

Florida elections supervisors also waited for an undetermined number of overseas ballots, primarily from military personnel and their families. The state allows 10 days after the election for the ballots to come in.

The state counted about 2,300 overseas ballots in the 1996 election -- more than the margin separating Gore and Bush this time -- so there is a remote possibility that those ballots alone could change the outcome. However, such voters tend to be Republicans, and the Gore camp held out little hope that it would change the result.

As Democrats searched for potential ballot abuses and questioned the motives of Florida's GOP secretary of state, Gore's staff said a legal challenge is one option.

Jeb Bush said the recount would be completed by this evening, but Democrats suggested that might not be the end.

``I can't say for certainty when this will be over,'' said Gore campaign chairman William Daley. ``This is the beginning of the process, not the end of the process.''

Americans cast more than 101 million votes, the second most in history behind the 104 million of 1992. But the race has come down to a few thousand people in Florida.

By late yesterday, Bush had won 29 states for 246 electoral votes. Gore had won 18 states plus the District of Columbia for 255 electoral votes. New Mexico and Oregon were still too close to call, but they wouldn't make a difference in the outcome.

With all precincts reporting unofficial results, Gore had 48,591,357 votes and Bush had 48,421,815 votes.

2000 San Francisco Chronicle