WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The creator of the infamous “butterfly ballot” used in the 2000 presidential election is fighting for her job as Palm Beach County’s elections chief.
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Florida’s voting system has been under scrutiny since 2000, when it took five weeks of legal maneuvering and some recounting before Republican George W. Bush was declared president over Democrat Al Gore.
Theresa LePore was at the center of the clamor after some voters said her ballot design, which listed the names of candidates on opposing pages, caused them to mistakenly vote for conservative candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Gore. The race ultimately was decided by just 537 votes statewide.
Democrats are now seeking redemption by trying to replace LePore with a former county school board member, Arthur Anderson. Republicans, meanwhile, have rallied behind LePore, viewing her re-election bid as a way to justify the 2000 presidential count.
Although the race is nonpartisan, Democrats have held fund-raisers for Anderson and brought in big names, including former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, to stump for him before Tuesday’s vote.
“A lot of people don’t think their votes matter anymore and that’s going to have to change,” Dean said at a recent Anderson campaign event. As he spoke, Democrats chanted “No More LePore in 2004!”
LePore, however, has welcomed the steady support from Republicans as she fights to retain the office where she has worked since 1971. “We’re going to show the nation that yes, we can do this in Palm Beach County,” LePore told a crowd of local Republicans recently.
The contest has angrily divided the county’s 705,000 voters. Democrats have an edge with about 318,000 registered voters. About 228,000 voters are registered Republicans and another 135,000 have no party affiliation.
Despite the trouble in 2000, LePore’s supporters point to recent history. In 2002, she ran a smooth election on new touchscreen voting machines while her counterparts in Broward and Miami-Dade counties again made Florida the punchline of national jokes because of voting problems in the gubernatorial election.
“It’s been proven in Broward that we can’t afford to have somebody in that office without the right credentials,” said state Rep. Adam Hasner, who supports LePore.
Anderson, who has no experience running elections, brushes off criticism that he’s not qualified.
“The emphasis should not be on experience but performance. Experience does not mean anything if someone has not been able to do an effective job,” said Anderson, 63. “If we have someone who is highly capable it will not take long to get ahead of the learning curve.”
Still, there are reminders of the 2000 election problems in the county. Legal questions have arisen over whether 172 voters who did not correctly sign their absentee ballots can correct their mistakes in time for Tuesday’s presidential primary.
LePore asked for guidance from the Florida Division of Elections, which rejected the idea.
“Once cast, the mailing envelope and ballot cannot be changed, cured, or in any other way manipulated by the voter, the supervisor of elections, or any other party,” State Elections Supervisor Dawn Roberts wrote.
Carol Ann Loehndorf, chairwoman of the Palm Beach Democratic Party, said a decision on whether to challenge Roberts’ opinion will be made Monday.
LePore, 49, said she has learned to focus on educating voters, poll workers and other employees, particularly now that the state has swapped the ridiculed punchcard ballots for electronic ones.
She said she understands that the credibility of voters is on the line in the upcoming election.
“We’re being held to a higher standard than anywhere in the United States, where every little minute thing that happens is made into a huge thing,” LePore said.
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