Florida ponders what to do with ballots from 2000

Thursday, May 1, 2003

MIAMI -- Another dispute is brewing over Florida's chaotic 2000 presidential election: Should the 6 million ballots, hanging chads and all, be destroyed or saved because of their historical significance?

Many election supervisors in Florida's 67 counties want to get rid of the ballots because they take up so much space. Miami-Dade's are in taped-up cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling of a warehouse, while Palm Beach County's 2000 election records sit on three 5-by-5 foot pallets, each of them 6 feet high.

"If someone wants to have all these, they better know what they're getting into," said Theresa LePore, the elections supervisor responsible for Palm Beach County's infamous "butterfly" ballot. She once joked a bonfire would be best way to get rid of the materials.

In all, Florida's 2000 election ballots would fill more than 450 four-drawer file cabinets. The problem is that there is no plan on what to do with them or any idea on what it would cost to store them in a single repository -- if one could be found to take them.

The Florida Secretary of State has extended the ballot preservation deadline until July 1 to give legislators time to decide what to do. But lawmakers have yet to discuss the ballots with less than a week to go in the legislature's regular session.

The ballots, for now, are in limbo.

"They ought to be dead, but they keep coming back," laughed Carolyn Kirby, elections supervisor in Columbia County for 21 years. "To tell the truth I'm a little sentimental about these things. I say, 'Let's retain these for their history,' but then I think, 'How much history can we retain?'"

She kept the ballots in her office until January when she shipped them over to a warehouse. In little Liberty County, elections supervisor Marcia Wood still has all 2,700 ballots in her office vault.

"Other than saying, 'Hey, here's the pile of ballots from 2000,' there isn't much use to them," said Kurt Browning, elections supervisor in Pasco County.

Julian Pleasants, a University of Florida history professor, said destroying the ballots would leave a hole in U.S. history.

"I'm sure a lot of people would just like to forget about it," he said. "But this is the only presidential election decided by the Supreme Court. If you don't have a ballot, how do you understand the difference between a hanging chad and a three-corner chad, or between a pregnant chad and a dimpled chad?"

The ballots were at the heart of the cliffhanger election and the ensuing five-week legal fight between George W. Bush and Al Gore. The Republican eventually won Florida, and thus the White House, by 537 votes.

By the time the Supreme Court made its crucial 5-4 decision, virtually everyone in the nation had heard of punchcard ballots, chads, undervotes, overvotes, voting irregularities, recounts and Secretary of State Katherine Harris, among other things.

Harris is now in Congress and Florida has overhauled its much-maligned election system with electronic voting in many places. But the ballots are still sitting here.

"I don't understand the anxiousness to destroy these things," said Gary Farmer, Jr., a Broward County lawyer who has gone to court to save the ballots.

A Palm Beach County judge has already issued a court order preventing destruction of the butterfly ballots. The ballot's large type was supposed to make voting easier for the elderly, but many complained the ballot was confusing and Gore supporters said they inadvertently voted for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.

Farmer has also sued Miami-Dade County to block destruction of the ballots, and he said he may sue the state to encompass all 67 counties.

During the 2000 recount, Farmer was involved in lawsuits by Democratic voters over disputed absentee ballots and the results in Palm Beach County. But he said he realizes the ballots will never make a difference in the election's outcome: "That ship has sailed."

Even after the July 1 deadline, election supervisors must ask permission to destroy their records, so the final decision on what to do with the ballots will be left up to Glenda Hood, the new secretary of state. A spokeswoman said only that Hood will make a decision soon.

The president's brother, Gov. Jeb Bush, said some of the ballots should be preserved.

"Some should be saved for historical purposes," he said. "I don't think the right thing to do would be to destroy them all."

Mary Frances Berry, chairwoman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in Washington, said every Florida ballot should be preserved.

"There's no way to write a valid and accurate history if you don't have the records," said Berry, whose controverisal 2001 report concluded that Florida minorities were intentionally denied voting rights.

"I know people in Florida get a headache every time they think about the elections," she said. "But throwing away the records isn't going to make the headache go away."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: