Tight race reveals cracks in system

By Dana Milbank, Washington Post, 11/13/2000

ELAND, Fla. - Something very strange happened on election night to Deborah Tannenbaum, a Democratic Party official in Volusia County. At 10 p.m., she called the county elections department and learned that Al Gore was leading George W. Bush 83,000 votes to 62,000.

But when she checked the county's Web site for an update half an hour later, she found Gore's count had dropped by 16,000 votes, while an obscure Socialist candidate had picked up 10,000 - all because of a single precinct with only 600 voters.

The aberration was relayed to County Judge Michael McDermott, the election overseer. ''We have a problem here,'' he said.

It was the beginning of a week-long tragicomedy of errors in this central Florida county, where an initial count showed Gore beating Bush by 97,063 votes to 82,214. Volusia's mess is in some ways more damning than the mix-up in Palm Beach County, where controversy has centered on a confusing ballot design. Although there is no evidence that the first round of results was wildly inaccurate, the problems in counting votes here are systemic. The underlying causes are not fraud or corruption, but lax state oversight, inadequate funding, out-of-date technology, poor training - and general ineptitude.

On election night, the disappearance of 16,000 votes was caused by faulty memory cards. Six precincts couldn't transmit their results because of computer problems, and the county's returns were delayed until 3 a.m. About that time, sheriff's deputies were dispatched to find an election worker who had left the ballot collection area with two uninspected bags.

Wednesday, when county officials were attempting a recount in front of TV cameras, an elderly poll worker walked in with a bag full of ballots that had been left in his car the previous night.

Friday, county workers found a ballot bag in their vault without a seal, another with a broken seal and a third on a shelf with ballots spilling out.

Saturday morning, 300 county workers and hundreds more party observers converged on county offices for a manual recount of nearly 200,000 ballots. Election workers expected to finish Volusia's recount by tomorrow's 5 p.m. deadline but said they would ask today for an extension.

The confusion in Volusia, one of four counties where Democrats have requested manual recounts, suggests why such an arduous process may be necessary. But it also suggests that Republicans who tried Saturday to stop the recounts, arguing that they won't resolve anything, may have a point.

''No wonder people in the North think we're a bunch of bumbling idiots - because we are,'' said James Clayton, a DeLand lawyer who represents Bush. ''From a practical standpoint, nobody has any faith in the system.''

Douglas Daniels, a Gore lawyer, predicts there will be ''television movies about how the election was stolen in Volusia County.''

But as election supervisor Deanie Lowe points out, each of the problems can be explained. For example, it turned out that the election worker who left with two bags was merely taking home dirty laundry. Had the presidential election not come down to a couple of hundred votes in Florida, the troubles here might have gone unnoticed.