A crisis born out of confusing ballot papers and intimidation

The Irregularities
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The Independent US

Why is Florida at the epicentre of the biggest political crisis in the United States for decades?

Why is Florida at the epicentre of the biggest political crisis in the United States for decades?

George W Bush won1,700 more votes than Al Gore (Mr Gore and Mr Bush each won 48.9 per cent), so small a majority that an automatic statewide recount was ordered under Floridian electoral law.

But the recount was quickly relegated to an irrelevant sideshow because of allegations of "irregularities" in a state with a history of serious election fraud.

The charge, which is the subject of a legal challenge backed by the Gore camp, is that the punch-card ballot paper in West Palm Beach, one of Florida's 67 electoral districts and a Democrat stronghold, was so confusing that it caused thousands of Gore supporters to spoil their votes or inadvertently cast their votes for the wrong man.

Up to 19,000 ballots, read by computer, had to be thrown away as they were "double-punched", while more than 3,000 went to Pat Buchanan, the right-wing Reform Party candidate, 2,500 votes more than he polled in any of the other 66 counties in Florida.

Meanwhile, Pinellas County, Florida, had to conduct a second recount after the first recount showed a large swing to Gore, in part because workers failed to count some 400 ballots on election night.

In Florida and elsewhere, there are also allegations of long lines at the polls, reports that ballots were late in arriving at the polling places and voter intimidation. Jesse Jackson has complained that black people and other minorities had difficulty voting in Florida and other Southern states. He said some of the voters were told there were no more ballots, or that polls were closed.

There are also several thousand postal votes to be counted in Florida, and a remote possibility that these could affect the final outcome.

Outside Florida, doubts are beginning to grow about the result in at least three very closely contested states. New Mexico, whose five electoral votes Mr Gore appeared to have carried narrowly, is now said to be too close to call.

A recount was under way yesterday of 67,000 ballots in Bernalillo County around Albuquerque, New Mexico's biggest city, where there were reports of computer problems. Although Albuquerque is predominantly Democrat, Mr Gore's previously estimated margin of victory was about 10,000, which was too small for complete comfort.

Mr Bush's campaign strategist, Karl Rove, also raised the possibility of an automatic recount in Iowa, because the final result is proving to be much narrower than previously thought. He had no exact figures. He had further questions about Wisconsin, a state with 11 electoral votes, where Mr Gore's margin of victory was about 5,500. In addition, there is still no confirmation of the result in Oregon, where all votes were submitted by mail and the initial count has proved agonisingly slow.

Further confusion may arise over the overall voting tally, which Mr Gore was leading last night by about 90,000 votes. Mr Rove said hundreds of thousands of absentee and remote-area votes remained to be counted, including as many as a million in California, up to 700,000 in Washington, 168,000 in Arizona and 10,000 in Colorado. Although the popular vote is not what determines the presidency, it may prove an important propaganda tool in the fight over Florida.