Go figure

How did a liberal, Jewish district end up casting a disproportionate share of votes for ultraconservative Pat Buchanan?

Published November 9, 2000 8:44PM (EST)

As the nation waits for a recount in Florida to decide who the next president will be, all eyes are focused on Palm Beach County, the liberal, Democratic stronghold that gave Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan a surprising 3,407 votes -- more than three times the votes the ultraconservative candidate received in any other Florida county, and almost 20 percent of his total in the state.

Three Palm Beach voters sued late Wednesday to force another vote in the county, alleging that the badly designed ballot was illegal and caused Democrats to cast their votes for Buchanan when they were trying to vote for Vice President Al Gore. Even Buchanan jumped into the fray Thursday, telling NBC's "Today" that "it seems to me that these 3,000 votes people are talking about -- most of those are probably not my vote and that may be enough to give the margin to Mr. Gore." Shortly after, a federal judge agreed to hold an emergency hearing on the lawsuit Thursday afternoon.

At the end of the day Wednesday, the Palm Beach County mystery deepened when it was reported that over 19,000 ballots were nullified for having more than one hole punched for a presidential candidate.

It's hard to imagine that liberal Palm Beach County, with its many Jewish voters, would turn out to be a Buchanan bastion. Buchanan is widely considered to harbor anti-Semitic sentiments, once praising Adolf Hitler as "an individual of great courage, a soldier's soldier in the Great War, a leader steeped in the history of Europe, who possessed oratorical powers that could awe even those who despised him." He has also written admiringly of Nazi Germany's efforts to counter the Soviet threat.

In 1992, the Anti-Defamation League charged that Buchanan had shown "a disregard or hostility toward those not like him and a consequent displeasure with the exercise of freedom by these others ... [a] displeasure expressed in a 30-year record of intolerance unmatched by any other mainstream political figure."

But where Buchanan earned three-tenths of 1 percent of the votes Florida cast for president, he drew eight-tenths of a percent of the presidential vote in Palm Beach County.

Gore's team dispatched a delegation of 50 workers to Florida to monitor the recount and to investigate the many reports of polling problems. Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher headed to Tallahassee to monitor the vote recount for the Democrats, while his Republican counterpart, James Baker, secretary of state in the Bush administration, performed the same duty for the Republicans.

The notion that a state led by Bush's brother Jeb holds the key to the election is a twist out of fiction, and raised intense concerns about the fairness of the election. The network's flip-flopping predictions about the Florida outcome throughout Election Night further heightened the mystery. Gov. Jeb Bush recused himself from responsibility for the recount. Meanwhile, Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat and close Gore advisor, took a leading role in focusing attention on the alleged voting irregularities. Political analysts pointed to recent cases of rampant electoral corruption in Florida, including the last mayoral race in Miami, raising the possibility that the state's presidential vote may also have been sullied.

At the end of the day Wednesday, Bush's margin over Gore in Florida had fallen to a mere 790 votes, as Palm Beach County's recount added nearly 1,000 votes to Gore's tally.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Jesse Jackson flew to Miami early Wednesday and led a rally to protest possible voter fraud and intimidation. Democrats received reports that African-American voters were harassed by police in Wakulla County. "Highway Patrol troopers were stationed outside of those precincts with lights flashing and ticketing people," Florida Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe told ABCNews.com. "It was bizarre; it was like going back into the early 1900s," he said.

Other complaints focused on Volusia County, where Democrats complained that Gore's vote count dipped by 10,000 at one point, inexplicably.

But the most explosive complaints came from Palm Beach County, where officials said that Democratic votes that inadvertently went to Buchanan could provide the margin of victory for Gore.

"You look at ballots where people voted straight Democratic tickets, except that they voted for Pat Buchanan, and that tells you something is wrong," said state Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton. Klein said he had been assigned by the Gore-Lieberman organization to monitor the recount at the Palm Beach County Elections Department.

"You also have votes that were disqualified because people voted twice for the presidency. That also indicates that people were confused. This could be of such magnitude that legal action could be called for." He said that Democrats might seek a court order from a federal judge that would lead to repolling in the district.

Klein had no firm numbers for how many ballots might have been affected or if it would be enough to change the outcome in Florida and the awarding of its decisive 25 electoral votes. Absentee ballots arriving from outside the country could also affect the final balance.

Republicans branded the polling controversy a ruse. Victorious GOP Rep. Mark Foley said the Buchanan vote tally, only 0.8 percent of votes cast in the county, was not particularly high. He said that in his Florida district race, the Reform Party candidate had drawn 2,651 votes, indicating more Reform Party voters than anticipated. But Democratic county commissioner Bert Aaronson disagreed.

"I don't think we have 3,000 Nazis in Palm Beach County," he said, referring to the Buchanan votes.

Luckily for Republicans, the controversial ballot design was approved prior to the election by a Democrat, Palm Beach County supervisor of elections Theresa LePore. It featured the names of six presidential candidates on one page and four on the facing page. The names were staggered so that the holes to be punched would not be directly next to each other, but one atop the other. Arrows pointed at which hole should be used. But according to Democrats, the design still made it unclear which hole to punch if you wanted to vote for Gore and which to punch for Buchanan. Although Gore's name was the second on the left-hand side of the ballot, the hole that corresponded to his name was third.

According to the Democrats, 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 and therefore the design used in Palm Beach violated the law.

"Right means right, doesn't it?" said Jeff Liggio, a lawyer for the county Democrats. "The state law says right; it doesn't mean left." But GOP officials said that since Democrats had accepted the ballot prior to the election, it was legal.

LePore defended her work Wednesday. She said the two-page layout allowed larger print to be used.

"I was trying to make the print bigger so elderly people in Palm Beach County can read it," she said. "We sent out sample ballots to all registered voters and no one said a word."

But some voters voiced their complaints Tuesday and Wednesday. "I was confused so I asked for help," said John Lazet, 66, a retiree who lives in the town of Lake Worth. "I asked which hole do I punch for Gore. The woman working at the polling place told me to punch the second hole. Then she came back and told me she had made a mistake and that it was the third hole. She didn't even know, but she brought me a new ballot. I complained that it was too confusing and that others wouldn't know what to do."

Lazet said he went to LePore's office to complain and got into an argument with the elections supervisor, who defended her work.

Anita Rizzo, who runs a preschool in the town of Loxahatchee, said she also found the ballot difficult.

"'This is a little confusing,' that's what I said to my husband," said Rizzo, 57. "If Gore is the second name, then you figure you punch the second hole, but, no, it wasn't like that. Then I heard another person, an older lady, two booths down, yell out that she needed help. She said she was trying to vote for Al Gore. She was obviously having a problem. I didn't think more about it. Since then I've spoken to at least two other people who had problems, including one woman who punched the wrong hole and had to ask for another ballot. Why did this county have a ballot different than other counties'? I called the [state] attorney general to complain, but the more I hear about it the more frustrating it is."

According to Democrats, the design of the ballots hurt Gore, but not his Republican opponent.

"If you voted Republican you had no problem because the first name was Bush and the first hole corresponded to him," said Eileen Klasfeld, 50, a psychologist from Boca Raton. "But if you were voting Democrat, you could have trouble. I have a doctorate and I had trouble."

By John Lantigua

John Lantigua is a Miami freelance writer. He shared the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for his work at the Miami Herald. Lantigua's fifth novel, "The Ultimate Havana" will be published next year by Signet.

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2000 Elections