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WASHINGTON — Advisers to Al Gore are already hinting that they’ll
explore “other options” should the hand recount in heavily Democratic
counties in South Florida fail to produce enough extra Gore votes to
overcome George W. Bush’s lead in the Sunshine State.
The first option — until
Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga nixed the idea
yesterday — was to obtain a court-ordered re-vote in Palm Beach County, where thousands of Gore supporters have signed sworn statements saying they may have mistakenly punched the ballot for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan.
Even independent analysts think Buchanan got about 2,400 more votes than he should have gotten, thanks to the county’s Rube Goldberg-like design of the presidential ballot. Many elderly voters say the punch-holes for Gore and Buchanan, though marked by arrows, were too close together, causing confusion.
After the statewide machine recount, Buchanan ended up with 3,411 votes in Palm Beach County, four more than he got in the first tally.
That’s 13 times as many votes as the 67-county average, and three times more than his next best showing of 1,013 in Pinellas County. Fully 20 percent of Buchanan’s 17,472 votes statewide came from Palm Beach County.
Put another way, conservative Buchanan garnered just 0.3 percent of conservative Florida’s presidential vote, yet 0.8 percent of reportedly liberal Palm Beach County’s presidential vote.
Statisticians call it an aberration. Gore advisers, laying the foundation for a legal challenge, say it’s proof of “voting irregularities” in the county.
But Bush advisers argue that Palm Beach, which voted 2-to-1 for Gore, has enough registered independents to make such a large vote for Buchanan plausible.
While true, it’s only a snapshot of the voting data. A wider view shows Palm Beach ranks No. 2 among Florida counties in registered Independents and Reform Party members, and tends to vote way out of step with other counties — and not just when it comes to Reform Party candidates.
Socialist Party and Constitution Party candidates for president had their best showings in Palm Beach this election, yet no one has suggested those results are anomalous.
Other counties where Buchanan got large chunks of votes, such as Pinellas County, share Palm Beach’s demographics, casting further doubt on the theory that thousands of Buchanan votes were intended for Gore.
And at this point, it is just a theory. Elderly voters only think they punched the wrong hole, but they can’t be sure without seeing their ballots. For all they know, they succeeded in voting for Gore.
So writing off most of Buchanan’s votes to voter error may be premature.
Still, consider the studies of two statisticians who’ve concluded that only error can explain the “unusual” vote for Buchanan.
“Palm Beach sticks out as an outlier from all of the other Florida counties,” said Greg D. Adams, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh,
who did a regression analysis of the
“Instead of the [original] 3,407 votes Buchanan received in Palm Beach County, he probably would have received under 1,000 votes, if the other counties in Florida are any guide,” Adams said.
AT&T Labs researcher Chris Volinsky agrees.
“We would expect similar results from Palm Beach as were seen in its neighboring counties,” he said.
Volinsky prepared a color map showing the distribution of Buchanan
county. Counties where Buchanan attracted the least votes, as a share of their totals, are in blue. Those where he attracted the most are in red.
Palm Beach shows up as a patch of red in a sea of blue, which “is perhaps evidence that something may have gone wrong,” Volinsky said.
Buchanan himself is even more sure of it.
“It’s pretty obvious that something’s wrong,” he said, allowing that most of his votes were meant for Gore.
Gore legal adviser Warren Christopher last week called the Buchanan vote an “anomaly.”
“Palm Beach got 3,800 votes — three times as many as any other county,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.” (Actually, the total is 3,400. Christopher came closer on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” when he said “3,500.”)
He and other advisers have pointed to the widely televised bar chart that shows a spike in Buchanan votes in Palm Beach compared with other counties.
Bush adviser Karl Rove has tried to blunt the impact of the chart by releasing their own state data showing 16,336 registered Independents and 337 registered Reform Party voters in Palm Beach — more than enough to have gone Buchanan’s way.
In fact, Rove could have sharpened his point by releasing party-registration data for all 67 counties.
They show a
disproportionate share of Independents and Reform Party members in Palm
According to Florida’s elections division, Palm Beach has the second-highest number of registered Independents and the second-highest number of registered Reform Party voters.
Pinellas County, which includes St. Petersburg, has slightly more registered Independents (17,614) and Reform Party members (425). Pinellas, which also went for Gore, had the biggest Buchanan turnout behind Palm Beach.
Now look at Broward County, another Gore stronghold. It borders Palm Beach County to the south and shares some of the conservative neighborhoods of Boca Raton.
At 332, Broward has the third-largest number of registered Reform Party voters. Even though the county went for Gore by a 2-to-1 margin, it cast more votes for Buchanan — 788 — than 63 other counties.
Christopher blames the Buchanan “irregularities” on the so-called “butterfly” ballot used in Palm Beach.
“We’ve come to believe that there are serious and substantial irregularities resulting from the ballot used only in one county,” he said. “That ballot was confusing and illegal.”
But neither Pinellas nor Broward, both with strong Buchanan turnouts, used butterfly ballots.
And look at the strong results for some of the more obscure presidential candidates farther down on the Palm Beach ballot — where no voters complained of confusion over which hole to punch, and no one has suggested any irregularities.
David McReynolds of the Socialist Party was a big hit in Palm Beach, attracting 302 votes and nearly half his state total. He didn’t come close in any other county. Miami-Dade County was next with 35 votes.
Conservative Howard Phillips of the Constitution Party of Florida also had his best showing in Palm Beach, garnering 190 votes — 80 more than runner-up Escambia County.
If Buchanan is an anomaly, why are these other third-party candidates on both the far left and right also so popular in Palm Beach?
Christopher called Buchanan’s strong results in Palm Beach “weird.” But maybe they’re normal. Maybe Palm Beach voters are, well, weird.
For more evidence, go back to the voter-registration data.
Of the 67 counties in Florida, just two boast members of the Workers World Party. Miami-Dade County has one and Palm Beach County lays claim to 15.
What is the Workers World Party? Its website says it’s a “working-class party that fights against capitalism.”
“Workers World fights for a socialist society, where the wealth is socially owned and production is planned to satisfy human need,” it says. “That’s also what workers around the world, from Cuba to China, have been struggling for.”
Workers World presidential candidate Monica Moorehead, whose name was not next to Gore’s on the ballot, attracted a healthy 104 votes in Palm Beach — seven times the number of Workers World members registered in the county. (By comparison, 10 times as many registered Reform Party voters turned out for Buchanan.)
Palm Beach is Florida’s third-biggest county. Of its 656,694 eligible voters, some 112,762 aren’t registered under any party, state records show.
To understand Palm Beach’s odd voting habits, it’s instructive to look at who lives there.
The county is home to a lot of wealthy old eccentrics, for one.
According to Census Bureau data, fully a quarter of Palm Beach residents are 65 and older. Even for Florida, a retiree haven, that’s high. Just 18 percent of the state’s population is 65 or older.
At $35,833, median income in the county is $5,835 higher than the median for the state. In fact, Palm Beach is the third-richest county in the U.S., and boasts more golf holes — 2,601 to be exact — than any other county in the nation.
But it’s not all beachfront condos and golf courses.
Part of Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings’ 23rd District cuts through the heart of the county, where a large black community coexists. Fifteen percent of the county is black — higher than the 12 percent U.S. average.
Palm Beach County, which has an above-average share of college graduates, at the same time is home to Florida Atlantic University and its many professors and students.
As one of the nation’s fastest-growing counties, Palm Beach has become more and more diverse, too. It added 22 percent more people last decade, while fast-growing Florida gained 17 percent, Census data show.
Interestingly, Pinellas County — which also went big for Buchanan — shares similar demographics.
Point is, Palm Beach isn’t made up of mostly old Jewish ladies who wouldn’t be caught dead voting for Buchanan — unless perhaps it were James Buchanan.
Nor would this be the first time voters there came out strong for Buchanan. In the 1996 GOP primary, the right-wing firebrand earned 8,788 votes in the county. So a 3,400-vote base does exist there.
More important, though, is evidence of down-ballot support for Reform Party candidates in this election.
John McGuire, Reform party candidate for U.S. Congress, garnered 2,651 votes from just the portions of Palm Beach County encompassed by District 16.
It’s highly plausible that those same 2,651 who punched the ballot for McGuire punched the ballot for Buchanan.
Indeed, Palm Beach is such a politically diverse and unpredictable county that it’s really not that improbable that somewhere close to 3,411 of its denizens cast a vote for Buchanan.