Florida recount

Workers continue the manual vote recount Saturday, Nov. 18, 2000, at the Broward County Emergency Operations Center in Plantation. A consortium of the nation's major news organizations now are conducting a recount of the Florida presidential vote. (Associated Press)

Everyone thought Monica was Bill Clinton's problem. But she might have cost Al Gore the presidency instead.

Monica Moorehead -- an obscure socialist running as the Workers World Party candidate -- nullified precious votes for Gore because of a fundamental design flaw on Florida ballots that divided the 10 presidential candidates into two columns.

In 13 of 15 Florida counties examined by the Orlando Sentinel, Moorehead was listed in the second column of the ballot along with Constitutional Party candidate Howard Phillips. In a 14th county, Gulf, she was by herself.

In all, 2,416 confused voters, viewing the ballot like a Chinese menu, picked Al Gore in column A and Moorehead or Phillips in column B -- disqualifying their ballots as "overvotes" for more than one candidate.

Far fewer Bush voters -- 1,852 -- made the same mistake.

So if only the first-column votes had been cast and counted, the invalidated ballots would have gained Gore a net 564 votes in those 15 counties. He lost the entire state, and thus the presidency, by only a 537-vote margin.

The split-column design caused voters to invalidate their own ballots, much as the punch-card "butterfly" ballot did in Palm Beach County.

That design was prompted by outdated ballot requirements, an unprecedented number of presidential candidates and confusion between the Florida secretary of state's office, county election supervisors and the ballot's designers.

In the first test since voters made it easier in 1998 for presidential candidates to get on the ballot, Florida learned a painful lesson about ballot design that other states discovered long ago: never split candidates into two columns.

"That's just something experience has taught us you don't do. You don't split them by page or by column, because you are inviting overvotes when you do that," said John Pearson, senior assistant director for elections in Washington state.

Just as the Palm Beach "butterfly" ballot produced "Jews for Buchanan" -- elderly Palm Beach County Jews who mistakenly wound up voting for a candidate criticized as anti-Semitic -- the two-column "Monica ballot" produced "conservatives for socialism." In 10 predominantly white North Florida counties, 264 people voted for both Bush and Moorehead -- a 48-year-old black atheist whose New York-based party "stands for revolutionary struggle of the workers and all oppressed people against this rotten capitalist system."

The various combinations of double-votes in which Bush or Gore was coupled with Phillips or Moorehead caused 3,567 ballots to be rejected in the 14 counties with the split ballot. That accounted for nearly a third of all the spoiled votes in those counties.

By contrast, in Lake County -- the only one of the 15 counties where all 10 candidates appear in one column -- that same combination of double-votes totaled only 71, or 2 percent of the county's 3,155 overvoted ballots. For all the havoc they caused in the small counties in the Sentinel study, the two candidates together received just more than 3,000 valid votes statewide.

The genesis of the flawed, split-column ballot goes back to 1998, when voters approved a constitutional amendment that made it easier for third-party presidential candidates to get on the ballot. The only requirements now: register the political party with the state, hold a national nominating convention and submit a slate of 25 electors.

Before 1998, minor-party candidates had to pay a fee and get petitions signed by 3 percent of the state's voters. Republican and Democratic candidates had to do only one or the other, a major reason why there were only four presidential candidates on the 1996 ballot.

The flood of candidates in 2000 caught election supervisors by surprise. Many of the rules followed by the supervisors and the company that designed their ballots were based on laws designed for no more than four presidential candidates and old-fashioned paper ballots. Everything from the size of type to the layout of the ballot is based on laws written for a time when voters marked their ballots and stuffed them into boxes.

The Florida Division of Elections, part of Secretary of State Katherine Harris' office, didn't anticipate the problems of splitting the long list of presidential candidates into two columns. The division sent a "sample ballot" to the 67 elections supervisors Sept. 26 with the presidential race divided into two columns. The sample ballot is only a guide; Harris' office lacks the power to order election supervisors how to configure their ballots, said Ed Kast, the division's assistant director.

"I can tell you Katherine Harris didn't see the sample ballot," Kast said. "When it comes to their layout, it's up to them."

But the company that designed the "Monica ballot" said many of the election supervisors accepted the state's sample "pretty much as gospel." Austin, Texas-based Hart InterCivic said it followed the format sent out by Harris' office when it designed the ballot for 12 Florida counties. No county supervisor, who has final approval over the form, rejected the design, Hart said.