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The most contentious presidential election in modern history may come down to the interpretation of Florida statutes governing-of all things-the design of paper election ballots. As the campaigns of Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush exchanged volleys over voting irregularities, attention turned to a handful of state lawsuits filed in Palm Beach County. The first suit , Fladell v. Palm Beach County Canvassing Board, filed Nov. 8 on behalf of three Palm Beach County voters who claim they voted for Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan by mistake, is similar to five others also filed in Palm Beach County’s 15th Judicial Circuit Court. The suits, seeking a new election, allege that state laws governing the design of ballots invalidate the ones used by Palm Beach County Nov. 7. In the election, Gore lost Florida by half of a percentage point, triggering a recount. Lawyers took notice when poll results showed that, despite its entrenched elderly Jewish Democratic residents, Palm Beach County gave Buchanan 3,704 of his 17,356 Florida votes. Another 19,120 ballots were disqualified because voters punched their ballots for two candidates. That was 4 percent of the ballots cast in the county and double the average ballot disqualification rate in neighboring counties. Palm Beach County was the only county to use paper “butterfly” ballots. Candidates were listed on facing pages, and between their names was a vertical row of circles meant to be punched by the voter. Small arrows directed voters to each candidate’s circle. Florida Statutes �101.151(4) and �101.191 require that “the names of the candidates of the party which received the second highest vote for Governor shall be second under the heading for each office…” The plaintiffs in the suits and Gore’s supporters claim that the layout of the ballot led many would-be Gore voters to punch the circle actually intended for Buchanan. Republicans have countered that the ballots were approved by a Democratic appointee before Nov. 7. The lawsuit, however, says that, since the Democratic Party came in second behind the Republicans when Governor Jeb Bush was last elected governor, the county violated the law simply by placing the Buchanan circle higher than that reserved for Gore. Supervisor of Elections and Canvassing board member Theresa LaPore “had no discretion to change the statutorily mandated position of the Democratic candidates on the ballot,” the Fladell complaint says. “As a result, many voters, and in particular, many senior citizens, intending to vote for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman, mistakenly punched the punch hole on the ballot card designated for Pat Buchanan.” A second lawsuit, filed Nov. 9, seeks class action status for the 600,000 Palm Beach County residents who voted on Nov. 7. Horowitz v. LePore, alleges federal and state civil rights violations caused by the confusing ballot. Attorney Mark A. Cullen of Boca Raton’s Szymoniak Firm, who brought the Horowitz suit, claims that “the balloting promulgated by the defendant was in violation of Florida law in that it failed to allow the voter to mark an ‘X’ or to utilize a punch strip to the right of the candidates name,” a reference to the requirements of state statute �101.011(1). Some legal experts have predicted that state court judges are unlikely to overturn a presidential election based on ballot design flaws. However, Patrick W. Lawlor, of Deerfield Beach, Fla.’s Young & Lawlor, points to the 1974 Florida Court of Appeals ruling in Nelson v. Robinson, 301 S.2d. 508. It says a court is justified in voiding an election if there exists a “reasonable probability that the results of said election would have been changed except for such irregularities.” Lawlor, who represents three plaintiffs in another voter suit, Elkin v. LePore, declares: “We have met our burden.” Nova Southeastern University law professor Robert M. Jarvis adds that a temporary injunction issued Nov. 9 by judge Kathleen Kroll in another voter suits is a good sign for the plaintiffs, and may result in a consolidation of all of the cases before a scheduled Nov. 14 hearing. THE LEGAL TEST Fladell lawyer Howard Weiss of Boca Raton, Fla.’s Weiss & Handler, says the test is “whether reasonable doubt has been created as to whether the results reflect the will of the voters.” Weiss adds that his firm seeks an expedited trial where experts may testify as to the ballot’s poor design. “It’s not an IQ test-a lot of people were confused.” Ronald G. Meyer of Tallahassee, Fla.’s Meyer and Brooks, a Democratic election lawyer attempting to coordinate the voter suits, says he persuaded one plaintiff to drop a federal suit Nov. 9 after it was assigned to a “conservative” federal judge. He claims the suits will likely be unified into one class action, but warns there is limited time to litigate since, once electoral votes are counted Dec. 18 and sent to Congress, “you’ll get into separation of powers problems.”

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