The Gore campaign is seriously considering a legal challenge to the highly contested vote count in Florida, a top campaign official tells ABCNEWS’ Nightline.
Democrats are looking carefully at ballots cast in Palm Beach County, Fla., where many voters complained the ballot was so confusing they accidentally voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Al Gore.
Florida’s 25 Electoral College votes would put either Gore, the Democrat who now has 260 electoral votes, or Republican George W. Bush, who has 246, past the 270 needed to win the presidency.
The potential mix-up in Palm Beach is just one of many complaints being fielded in Florida, where an exhaustive recount in one of the tightest presidential contests in decades got under way Wednesday.
Before the recount, the official tally had Bush leading Gore by only 1,784 votes. That margin fell within the one-half of 1 percent of the vote needed to call for a recount under Florida state law.
There were so many mistakes made, according to Democratic sources in Florida, that more than 19,000 ballots in Palm Beach County — 4 percent of the total — were disqualified because they contained punches for more than one presidential candidate.
After the first day of Florida’s recount, with 32 out of 67 counties retallied, Gore had picked up a net gain of 843 votes.
Serious Legal Challenge May Come
A senior official in the Gore campaign tells ABCNEWS’ Nightline that given the seriousness of the revelations in Palm Beach County, the campaign is definitely “moving in the direction” of mounting a serious legal challenge.
Hundreds of Gore supporters called the county elections office on Wednesday, saying the punch-card ballot was so confusing they thought they may have accidentally voted for Buchanan instead of Gore. In fact, Palm Beach county officials sent out notices to poll workers to remind voters that “they’re to punch the hole next to the arrow, next to the number, next to the candidate they wish to vote for.”
Regardless of the efforts made by county officials, three Palm Beach county voters said they would sue, seeking a new election.
The Democratic congressman from the district said he was outraged.
“We have an election law catastrophe in Florida!” an angry Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., told Nightline. He argued that there is enough evidence to warrant not only a recount, but a court challenge as well.
“I saw with my own eyes several hundred people come out of the ballot box in hysterics, but I also know other things,” Wexler said. “The numbers speak for themselves.”
“I know my people,” he added. “Trust me when I tell you there are communities where Pat Buchanan would never get five or six dozen votes and he did.”
On Wednesday, Florida election officials said the ballot complied with state law and that both parties had approved it before the election. The Bush campaign insisted there was no evidence of fraud.
Buchanan Ballot Blunder?
Democratic Party officials said sample ballots handed to Florida voters by volunteers as they entered the polling places in precincts in Palm Beach listed the candidates in a different order than what voters saw in the voting booths.
The result, they said, was voters who referenced the sample ballots to cast their votes may have voted for Buchanan when they thought they were voting for Gore.
The Democratic National Committee said it started receiving complaints from voters that the actual ballot was very confusing. Basically, voters said, the hole punch for Gore on the ballot was so close to that of Buchanan that many voters weren’t sure who they had voted for.
“By Gore there were two holes … I had to figure out which one,” said voter Lena Fransetta. “I asked one of the ladies for help and she didn’t know. When I left I figured out I voted wrong.”
That confusion, sources said, may have accounted for the double voting on so many of the thousands of disqualified balllots.
Buchanan earned 3,407 votes or .8 percent of the vote for the presidency. Statewide, Buchanan won 16,698 or .3 percent of the vote.
Democrats say it would be unusual for Buchanan to get so many votes in this heavily Democratic County, where Gore pulled in 62.2 percent of the votes.
“Pat Buchanan wound up getting significant votes in condo and senior communities where overwhelming numbers of people are moderate-to-liberal Democrats,” Wexler said. “There will be many ballots whether it is actually straight Democratic ticket voting except for Pat Buchanan.”
The complaints about the confusion came in early on Tuesday, Democrats contend.
Democratic National Committee officials reacted immediately by calling the county supervisor, trying to put up signs, or designate a phone number for those who felt they may have voted the wrong way. The director of Florida’s Division of Elections, Clay Roberts, said there was nothing wrong or unlawful with ballots in the state .
Boxes Missing, Then Found The DNC at one point also claimed nine ballot boxes were missing in Broward County, which reported approximately 571,000 votes, but later reported the boxes were recovered and were being counted.
They said they had no information on how the boxes were lost or how they were found. Ed Cast of the Florida Elections Committee said the boxes were never really missing. “There was a slight mishap, but they have been sitting at the supervisor’s office,” Cast said.
Other allegations of a misplaced vote box appeared to be unfounded when it turned out, according to election officials, that the box did not contain ballots, but rather materials used by election workers.
Recount Demanded Early
Even before the presidential race in Florida became too close to call, and Democrats asked for a recount there. Party officials said voters were complaining of misinformation, possible tampering and other irregularities in the Sunshine State.
“There have been reports of irregularities,” ABCNEWS Political Director Mark Halperin said.
“Florida is a big, sprawling state with a pretty fabled political history in terms of, in some parts of the state, voting irregularities. If it comes down to the question of a mistake in Florida, how close Florida is, and Florida deciding the winner, I think there’s going to be a lot of looking at the process as a whole. The winner of Florida in all likelihood wins this election.”
Vanishing Votes in Volusia?
A Florida Democratic Party official has raised a concern that thousands of votes for Gore may have been omitted from the Democrat’s vote total because of a computer error in Volusia County.
The problem was due to a faulty computer disk that contained results from a particular precinct, but county officials have not yet said specifically what the trouble was.
According to Bob Poe, state chairman for the Florida Democratic Party, Democrats had received reports of an instance in which a preliminary voting count Wednesday morning for Gore in Volusia County, reported by Florida election officials, actually decreased by about 10,000 over time, before climbing again.
“Now that might have been a typo, who knows,” he told ABCNEWS.com. “Stranger things have happened in Volusia County.”
The alleged decrease may also have been detected by Miles Gibson, a PhD candidate and instructor at the University of Virginia, who says he recorded 2,716,995 votes for Gore in Florida at 2:06 a.m. Wednesday morning and then 2,707,798 votes — 9,000 fewer — for Gore at around 2:15 a.m., nine minutes later, while following a national newscast.
“I can’t certify these numbers, but I was paying extremely careful attention,” Gibson said.
ABCNEWS reported the same figures. At around 2:04 A.M., the network gave Gore 2,716,995 votes in Florida. About ten minutes laters, the network said Gore had 2,707,798.
ABCNEWS drew its data from Voter News Service, a consortium created by the networks to share raw polling data.
A Volusia county court judge said Wednesday there is nothing to indicate Volusia’s unofficial vote count is flawed or that appropriate procedures were not followed.
The county’s Canvassing Board was to meet Wednesday to discuss the matter, and a judge directed that three members representing the Democratic and Republican parties be present. State election officials could not be reached for comment.
Judge Michael McDermott also ordered Volusia’s election office secured and all ballots were locked in the office vault.
“We will doing everything it takes to make sure the public has full confidence in the ballot count here,” McDermott said.
“We’re hearing all sorts of things. Right now we’re trying to sift through what’s true and, you know, this is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen,” said Poe.
GOP Investigating Reports
Republican National Committee spokesman Tom Yu said Tuesday that party officials were aware of the reports of voter tampering and irregularities and that they were investigating.
“I’ve heard rumors but I can’t confirm any of those rumors yet and I think at this point our people are looking into those rumors and trying to track down if they are true,” Yu said.
In response to the reports of voter confusion at Palm Beach, Yu said voters should pay the close attention when they’re voting and report any irregularities to the polling place and to their local officials. But he also warned against jumping to any conclusions about rumored voting irregularities.
“We’re investigating the irregularities and if those irregularities do exist then, let’s find the source and try to rectify them,” he said. “At this point I think it’s an investigation that we don’t want to raise any undue excitement that isn’t warranted. We are looking into any of these irregularities and if they do prove to exist, the proper action will be taken.”
Voting Issues Elsewhere
Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jenny Backus said Tuesday that some New York voters were turned away from some polling places, discouraged from voting altogether, and possibly confused into voting unintentionally for a candidate they didn’t really want.
However, given the large victory margins for Democrats in New York, it is unlikely that any alleged tampering had any impact on the races.
Backus also said the DNC’s Web site was hacked Monday night and that its e-mail server crashed because it received a large wave of messages. The system was back up and running by 10 a.m. Tuesday.
“This just brings shame to the election process,” she said.
Hackers also targeted the GOP’s Web site. Hours before polls opened, RNC spokesman Yu said, the GOP’s site was replaced by a lengthy anti-Bush tirade.
While saying his message was not endorsed by either party, the unidentified hacker left a link to Gore’s campaign site and wrote, “George W. Bush would make a great president for those states which traffic not so much in decency but bigotry. Not acceptance but hate. Not love but fear.”
Possibly More False Information
Democratic Party officials also alleged voters were intimidated and misinformed before entering voting booths in states including Missouri, Michigan, Iowa, and Kansas. Democratic officials relayed unconfirmed reports from Iowa of senior citizens receiving telephone calls telling them they could not vote unless specifically registered for the election.
“This isn’t true,” said Backus. It’s “designed to confuse seniors and keep them from voting for Al Gore … We won’t stand for it and challenge the other side to stand up as well.”
In West Virginia, according to officials, voters were receiving calls from a Republican phone bank in California falsely telling them Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., had not endorsed Gore.
In fact, said Hattaway, “it’s the first time he has endorsed a Democrat for president since 1964, when he endorsed Lyndon Johnson.”
In an incident not described by Democratic officials, Kansas’ state government is looking into telephone calls made to some residents giving false information about the state’s election laws, according to The Associated Press.
Democrats had reported getting recorded messages Monday night incorrectly telling them they must bring voter registration cards to polling places to be allowed to cast a ballot, the AP reported.
The campaign of Rep. Dennis Moore, a Democrat seeking re-election in the 3rd Congressional District, had contacted the FBI Wednesday morning about the phone calls.
Moore’s office played the message for the AP: “Failure to comply with election law is serious business, so make sure you have your card and do it right.”
Attempts to Extend Poll Closings
Meanwhile, Democrats in various states Tuesday night tried unsuccessfully to get polls to stay open later to accommodate long lines of voters. In St. Louis, just an hour before polls were set to close, a judge ordered them to stay open three hours past their closing time — until 10 p.m. local time — to accommodate the heavy turnout.
Democrats who sought the extension cited long lines and a shortage of booths, ballots, judges and other equipment. Judge Evelyn M. Baker said the Board of Election Commissioners “failed to live up to its duty to the voters of the city.”
However, 45 minutes after the ruling, a three-judge panel in the Missouri Court of Appeals overturned Baker’s decision and ordered the polls closed at once. Similiar filings to keep polls open were denied in Madison and Milwaukee, Wis., Portland, Maine, and Detroit.
ABCNEWS’ Chris Bury, Kendra Gahaga, and ABCNEWS.com’s David Ruppe, Bryan Robinson, Dorian Benkoil, Elizabeth McCorry and Julia Campbell contributed to this report.