WASHINGTON — Despite the vote recount in Florida, apparent confusion over the ballots in one county has now become the focal point of uncertainty about the presidential election - and could lead to an unprecedented legal clash.
The underlying question: Should a second vote be conducted in Palm Beach County?
Such a revote would almost certainly determine who the next president is. The process would most likely favor Al Gore since the affected precincts in Palm Beach County are for the most part heavily Democratic.
Lawsuits are already being filed in Palm Beach County on behalf of voters who say the election process was unfair. Legal experts say there is no precedent calling for a revote on the basis of voter confusion. But under Florida law, a state judge has the power to overturn election results and order an election to be held again.
"Our law does permit a revote if a judge orders it," says Joseph Little, an elections law expert at the University of Florida. "A judge would have to find that something about the election - it may not be outright fraud - but something about the election was such that it caused the wrong person to be elected."
Mark Tushnet, a constitutional law expert at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, agrees that Florida judges have wide discretion in such cases. But he says the issue isn't whether voters were confused.
"There have been challenges, occasionally successful, on the grounds that the form of the ballot was confusing, not on the grounds that voters were actually confused," Mr. Tushnet says. "You can look at a piece of paper and say it is confusing. You can't call voters in and say 'Did you vote for Buchanan when you intended to vote for Gore?' "
The issue arises as the nation waits to learn who will become the next president of the United States.
Prior to the Florida recount, George W. Bush held a slim 1,655-vote lead. Those numbers have shifted during the recount, but final results are not expected until overseas absentee ballots are counted, perhaps as late as next Friday.
Whoever is declared the winner of the popular vote in Florida will receive the state's 25 electoral votes and become the president-elect.
At that point, the losing candidate must make a decision on whether to challenge the Florida process in the courts. It would be a political decision with potentially enormous repercussions for the nation. In 1960, amid allegations of substantial voter fraud in Illinois and elsewhere, Richard Nixon declined to challenge the slim majority that gave John F. Kennedy the presidency.
Mr. Gore would not necessarily have to pursue his own lawsuit to have the issue aired in a Florida court. Pro-Gore lawyers are already scouring Palm Beach County for confused voters willing to file suit.
In Washington, meanwhile, Attorney General Janet Reno said she would review the NAACP's request that her office investigate allegations of voting irregularities in Florida. The NAACP alleges that black voters were turned away at one state polling place because of a shortage of ballots. The black vote in Florida rose from 13 percent in 1996 to 16 percent this year.
But should Gore decide to file his own suit, that suit would take on huge implications and establish an important precedent for future presidential races, analysts say.
"That is something that would have to be very carefully considered," says Anthony Corrado, an elections expert at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. "What is the harm to the country of trying to contest the election when the official recount is completed?"
Mr. Corrado adds, "There have been no allegations of fraud whatsoever, so you have a much more difficult standard of proof for the claims they want to make."
It may not stop in Florida. If, for example, Gore mounts a legal challenge to Florida results favoring Mr. Bush, some experts suggest it might cause Bush to challenge close election results in states that went for Gore - sinking the nation in a morass of lawsuits and undermining the finality of the election process and any claim to legitimacy that the victorious candidate might have.
Several states could be ripe for such challenges. Gore's lead in New Mexico is a mere 5,013 votes, his lead in Wisconsin is 6,099 votes, his advantage in Iowa is 4,954 votes. The Bush margin in New Hampshire is 7,282 votes.
At issue in Palm Beach County are some 19,000 ballots that were invalidated because more than one presidential candidate was selected. Many voters have complained that their ballots were confusing because Gore was the second candidate from the top of the ballot but the hole punch to vote for him was the third hole from the top.
Voting in Florida involves punching holes into the ballot, which means that if a vote is cast mistakenly for the wrong candidate, voters must request a new ballot. A ballot will not be counted if two candidates for the same post are selected.
The presumption in Palm Beach County is that the majority of the 19,000 invalid ballots are a result of voters who punched the wrong hole, realized their mistake, and instead of asking for a new ballot, simply punched the Gore hole as well. All such ballots are thrown out under Florida law.
Staff writers Linda Feldmann and Kris Axtman contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society