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Lessons Learned from 2000 US Presidential Election - 2001-12-25

The year 2001 saw several U.S. news organizations revisiting the biggest domestic story from the previous year: the hotly-contested presidential vote in Florida. Americans had to wait nearly six weeks after election day 2000 to find out who their president would be. In the end, then-Texas Governor George W. Bush defeated then-Vice President Al Gore by a razor-thin margin. Independent reviews of Florida's contested ballots largely confirmed that outcome.

In the end, the 2000 presidential vote hinged on fewer than 1,000 of the six million ballots cast in Florida.

It was the U.S. Supreme Court that effectively brought the matter to a close, overturning the Florida Supreme Court's order that a recount be completed in Miami-Dade county, and that all recount results be included in the state's final vote tally.

But what if the recount had been completed in all four Florida counties targeted by the Gore campaign? The Miami Herald newspaper was one of several news organizations that conducted independent reviews of the contested ballots. Herald managing editor Mark Seibel says that, even if the recount had proceeded unhindered, George Bush would still be president.

"We determined that there were not enough ballots in those four counties for Al Gore to have changed the outcome of the election," he said. "So, had that count gone forward without any Republican [party] challenge, basically George Bush would have won."

But the 2000 Florida vote controversy extended beyond the recount. Palm Beach County utilized a so-called "butterfly ballot" in which candidates' names were listed to both the left and the right of the holes where voters had to punch.

This layout appeared to confuse some voters. Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan received seven times the number of votes in Palm Beach as he did in any other Florida county. Herald managing editor Mark Seibel says a startling number of people invalidated their ballots by voting for more than one candidate, and that the vast majority of those ballots included a vote for Al Gore.

"Probably, if those people could have done their ballots correctly, Al Gore really won the state of Florida," he said. "Our calculation was that there were 40,000 more "overvoted" ballots where people had punched for Gore, than where people had punched for Bush."

The voting problems in Palm Beach County put a spotlight on elections supervisor Theresa LePore, who compares the 2000 presidential vote to the recent movie The Perfect Storm.

"The reason I did that ballot that way was because we have a large elderly population in the county and I was trying to make the print large enough for them to see," she said. "The information was sent out to all of the candidates [beforehand] and no one said there was any problem until election day."

But Ms. LePore says the problem has been solved. Palm Beach is one of several Florida counties that has abandoned the punch-card voting system that generated so much controversy. The new system is computerized and resembles the automated teller machines offered by many banks.

"Palm Beach County has purchased a touch-screen voting system," said Ms. LePore. "The voter will touch the screen next to the candidates they wish to vote for. You cannot overvote. If you undervote, which means skip a race, it will tell you that you skipped a race and give you an opportunity to go back, if you wish, or to continue on."

Many observers have suggested the 2000 presidential vote was a humbling experience for the United States. They say it was a reminder that, even in advanced democracies, great care must be taken to assure the accuracy of the balloting process and to maintain the people's faith in the voting system.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001