The disappearing ballots of Duval County

More than 22,000 were tossed out in this Republican stronghold, but most of them were cast in minority, Democratic neighborhoods, and the Gore camp is crying foul.

Published November 13, 2000 10:36PM (EST)

While the nation focuses on several southeast Florida counties where election officials are struggling to come up with an accurate vote count from last Tuesday's presidential election, another brush fire is burning upstate in solidly Republican Duval County. There, an extraordinary number of discarded ballots are also at issue, and Democrats are crying foul.

Of the 292,000 votes cast in Duval County, nearly 9 percent, or 27,000, were nullified. "Overvoting," punching holes for more than one candidate, caused 22,000 votes to be tossed, while 5,000 were voided because voters didn't choose anyone, known as "undervoting." Machines tabulating the vote automatically spit those out.

Over the weekend, several prominent Republicans, such as GOP chairman Jim Nicholson and Rep. Tillie Fowler, R-Fla., pointed to the 22,000 nullified votes in Duval County as proof that the practice is common. They suggested that even though Bush would have benefited if there had been a hand recount in the county, which he won 152,000-107,000, they were not complaining about the process. "These things happen in elections," stressed Nicholson on CNN.

Truth is, Democrats are the ones outraged about Duval. They're angry because close to half the voided ballots -- nearly 12,000 votes -- came from just four of Duval County's 14 city districts. The four districts cover predominantly African-American areas of Jacksonville, where Vice President Al Gore won handily.

Duval County did not use the controversial "butterfly ballot," yet the number of voters apparently confused skyrocketed this year. In 1992, a combined 6,000 over- and undervotes were discarded in Duval County, and 7,500 were thrown out during the '96 presidential election, according to local officials. This year's jump to 27,000 represented 8.9 percent of all votes cast in the county, compared with 2 and 3 percent in the previous presidential tallies in Duval. Nationally, the percentage of presidential ballots discarded for under- and overvoting runs between 1.0 and 1.8 percent, according to Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for Study of the American Electorate.

What's so unusual, according to election experts such as Bob Naegele, who certifies voting machines for the Federal Election Commission, is that the normal rate of overvoting when punch-card ballots are used is roughly 0.1 percent. In Duval County last Tuesday, the rate ballooned to 7.5 percent. "That kind of percentage is just outrageous," he says. Even in Palm Beach County, where some residents say confusion reigned on Election Day and 29,000 ballots were dismissed, the overvote rate climbed to only 4.1 percent.

"I have no idea why 22,000 people could not follow directions," says Mike Hightower, chairman of Bush's northeast Florida campaign. Duval County's ballot this year consisted of 10 presidential candidates (plus a space for one write-in), spread over two pages, which may have led voters to punch a hole on the first page, turn the page and then vote for another presidential candidate.

"I would suspect it was either a poorly designed ballot or lack of voter education," says Rob Richie, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Voting.

According to Gore's northeast Florida campaign chairman, Mike Langton, Gore won 84 of Duval's 265 precincts. On average at those precincts, 138 votes were tossed. In the precincts Bush carried, the average number of tossed presidential ballots was 83 votes per precinct.

"In some black precincts 31 percent of votes were rejected," says Langton. He is also fuming because he found out about the unusually high number of voided ballots not from county election officials, but from a reporter with the Jacksonville paper. That call came in late Friday, just hours before the midnight county deadline to request a manual recount.

Langton claims that a day after the election he asked Republican county supervisor of elections John Stafford how many ballots were nullified. "He said, 'Oh, not that many, two or three hundred.' I asked him, 'When can I get exact numbers?' He said, 'I can't get you that until Monday.' But he sent those specifics to Tallahassee last Wednesday. I don't have any reason to believe why he'd purposely misled me, but he did."

Neither Stafford, nor his spokeswoman, returned calls for comment.

"The supervisor is an honorable man," says Hightower. "If anyone has an allegation, then they should come forward with evidence, not innuendo." Asked when he first learned about the discarded ballots, Hightower says Stafford told him last Thursday that they numbered in the thousands.

Chris Newland, an attorney working with the Gore campaign in Duval, says Democrats may go to court to get access to the invalid, double-punched ballots to detect any possible fraud. "If for instance, 19,000 of the 22,000 have Gore and somebody else punched, then eyebrows may be raised," he says.

Other oddities surround the county vote. Once the discarded ballots were factored in, it turns out more people in Duval County voted in Florida's Senate race than voted for president of the United States. Traditionally, the top ticket on any ballot, and particularly when there is a vote for the White House, attracts the most votes. Yet in Duval, 9,417 people who voted for a Senate candidate simply didn't bother to vote for president.

Also, in stark contrast to the scene in Palm Beach County, where election offices were flooded with hundreds of calls from confused voters on Election Day, the Duval County supervisor of elections received just a handful of calls last Tuesday, despite the fact that, according to the invalidated votes, nearly one in 10 county voters did not correctly mark the ballot.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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2000 Elections Al Gore George W. Bush