Al's ballot blues

Florida relaxed its standards two years ago and the resulting flood of presidential candidates may have cost Gore the election.

By Eric Boehlert

Published November 16, 2000 8:06PM (EST)

They called themselves Floridians for Fair Elections. Made up of grass-roots activists from Common Cause, the Libertarian Party, the Reform Party and the Green Party, the coalition formed in the late '90s in an effort to ease access to the state's overly restrictive ballot. Bureaucratic hurdles and high filing fees, they argued, made it almost impossible for non-Republicans or non-Democrats to run effective races in Florida.

Two years ago their ballot access initiative passed with more than 60 percent support among Florida voters. Overnight, Florida's ballot went from being perhaps the hardest in the country to get on for third-party presidential candidates to being by far the easiest.

The unintended consequences, however, were on display this past Election Day, the state's first major polling event since the initiative passed. There, ballots suddenly crowded with nearly a dozen presidential candidates created widespread voter confusion in some counties using punch-card ballots. That bafflement translated into tens of thousands of nullified votes, votes most likely intended for Vice President Al Gore. Plus, there's little question that if it hadn't been for the state's newly relaxed ballot standards, Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, who siphoned off tens of thousands of votes from Gore in Florida, wouldn't even have been on the state's ballot.

In other words, Florida's feel-good ballot access initiative may well have cost Gore the presidency.

Known as Revision 11, the ballot access push was sponsored in 1998 by Florida's unique Constitution Revision Commission. Made up of 37 appointed members, the CRC convenes once every 20 years, holding public meetings and weighing possible amendments to the state's Constitution.

Lobbied by Floridians for Fair Elections, who found no support for reform among the state's elected officials, CRC adopted the push for equal ballot access. "It took an end run around the legislature to do it," says Daniel Walker, a leading Florida Libertarian Party member.

Florida's fierce opposition to third parties dates back to 1928, when ballot confusion helped the Communist Party grab 2 percent of the presidential vote, its best showing in the entire country. Instead of reforming the ballot, an embarrassed Florida essentially eliminated all procedures for third-party candidates to get on the ballot, according to Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News. In 1970, the state's Supreme Court softened the law some, but Florida still remained hostile toward candidates outside the Republican or Democratic parties.

Revision 11 changed all that. But in a quirk, the Florida legislature, while codifying the ballot amendment language into law, made it far easier for third-party candidates running for president to get on the ballot than those running for local or state office.

According to Revision 11, the legislature simply had to make certain that "Independents and candidates of minor parties would have to be allowed on the ballot on the same conditions as Republicans and Democrats."

This language still allowed the legislature to impose significant restrictions -- which it didn't do. "It didn't follow logically that Florida had to suddenly become the easiest state [for presidential candidates] just because of Revision 11," says Winger. For instance, he says, the state could have required parties to have at least 1,000 registered members in Florida.

Instead, the guidelines merely required that presidential candidates be from "nationally recognized" parties, have a national convention, certify to the state its nominee and produce a list of 25 electors who would vote for its candidate if he or she won the state. No filing fee or petitions were required.

"It's very, very easy," says Winger, who says the hardest part of the process for Workers World Party nominee Monica Moorehead was finding 25 adults in Florida who were registered party members who would agree to be listed as potential electors. She eventually did.

So did nine others. Florida's ballot for president last week included 10 candidates, as well as a space for a write-in. The parties represented included the Constitution Party of Florida, the Natural Law Party and the Florida Socialist Worker's Party -- not to be confused with another entrant, the Socialist Party of Florida.

The crowded field surprised even some Revision 11 supporters. "I thought there would be five or six candidates at the most," says Lisa Bullion, the chairwoman of Florida's Libertarian Party. "Nobody envisioned that many candidates on this year's ballot."

Without Revision 11, it's doubtful most people would have envisioned Nader on Florida's ballot. Based on the state's previous, more stringent requirements, Nader would have had to get signatures from 82,000 registered Florida voters in order to secure a spot on Election Day. By comparison, Nader failed this year to get on North Carolina's ballot, where he needed 51,000 signatures, and Georgia's, where he needed 39,000. In '96, running as a write-in candidate in Florida, Nader won just 4,096 votes.

In September, county supervisors of elections across the state were given the final slate of accepted presidential candidates. As they began to design their local ballots, supervisors in punch-card counties knew right away they had a problem on their hands. How to fit all the names and party affiliations on an 8-by-4-inch punch card? Solutions: Cram them onto one page, spread them out over two or use, as Palm Beach County did, the infamous "butterfly ballot."

"Revision 11 spelled the end of punch-card ballots," says Pam Iorio, supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County, in the Tampa metropolitan area. "We didn't know it at the time because ballot design was not front and center when the amendment passed. But I knew it when we started laying out the ballot for the 2000 election. We've never had a presidential ballot as long as we had last week, and it was a challenge to punch-card counties."

Seventeen of Florida's 67 counties, including the state's five largest, use the antiquated punch-card system. Why? It will cost a county the size of Hillsborough $10 million to switch to a new tabulating system.

Iorio stuck with a traditional, single-card ballot design, but was not happy with the results: "It was compressed, there was not a lot of white space." While election officials have discretion when it comes to design, and can, for instance, abbreviate party affiliations to save space, Iorio felt that with so many presidential candidates representing obscure minor parties she needed to spell them all out, which ate up crucial space.

"It was difficult," adds Susan Tucker Johnson, spokeswoman for Duval County's supervisor of elections. "We felt like our options were limited." In a first, Duval, home of Jacksonville, went with a two-page presidential punch-card ballot. Five candidates were listed on the first page, which at the bottom read in bold type: "Turn page over for continued list of candidates for president and vice president."

The problem, says Iorio, who rejected that design in her county, is, "People turn a page and believe they're onto a new race and vote again."

That appears to be exactly what happened in Duval County, where nearly 22,000 of the county's 280,000 voters, or roughly 9 percent, mistakenly punched holes in both cards. Those ballots were automatically discarded by machines for "overvoting." The normal rate of punch card overvoting is less than 1 percent.

Although Bush won Duval County, election data shows nearly 12,000 of the discarded overvotes came from just four districts in predominantly black sections of Jacksonville, where Gore won roughly 80 percent of the vote.

Unlike "undervote" ballots with "pregnant chads" that haven't been pushed all the way through but can be manually recounted, overvotes are lost forever.

In Palm Beach County, Supervisor of Election Theresa LePore, reportedly concerned about the county's large population of senior citizens, used a butterfly ballot to make sure the crowded presidential field of candidates all appeared in large print. But because of the ensuing confusion, another 19,000 double-punched ballots, most of them likely for Gore, were thrown out by machines.

Combined, in Duval and Palm Beach counties, where confusing, crowded punch-card ballots reigned, there were just over 40,000 overvotes. Based on the election returns in those counties, and knowing where the overvotes took place, it's likely Gore would have picked up approximately 28,000 of those nullified votes.

(That number could be grounds to challenge the election. If Florida's secretary of state certifies the results, Gore has five days to formally contest them, which as a matter of Florida law would not be difficult: According to a 1999 provision, an election challenge can be based solely on the "rejection of a number of legal votes sufficient to change or place in doubt the result of the election.")

That 40,000 figure in Duval and Palm Beach is especially telling, considering that all of the other 65 Florida counties combined only had 130,000 votes voided.

The surge of presidential candidates in the wake of Revision 11 had little impact on counties that use more sophisticated voting procedures and don't have to worry about crowded ballot space. For instance, Leon County, home of the state capital, Tallahassee, uses an optical scan system in which voters fill in a bubble with a pen instead of punching a hole in a card. Whether there are five candidates or 15 listed, it does not matter. Not surprisingly, just 181 votes, or 0.2 percent of that county's total, were nullified.

Even some Revision 11 proponents, like Dorothy Byrne, coordinator of Florida's Green Party, speculate that Florida's ballot access law may be toughened up in an effort to avoid a repeat of this year's Election Day train wreck. "I wouldn't be all that surprised if they change it in some fashion by 2004," she says.

For Al Gore, that may be too little, too late.

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