She's not going to plead to keep her job. She's not going to prostrate herself and beg forgiveness. She's defiant about 2000: She simply wanted to make a ballot that elderly voters could easily read.
"I don't feel guilty. I did what I thought was best at the time," she says.
Her chief antagonist at the moment is Robert Wexler, the combative Democratic congressman from the retiree-heavy 19th District of Florida. Compactly built, with brushed-back hair and a battle-ready voice, Wexler came to prominence during President Clinton's impeachment year, and during the Florida recount became a fixture on the nightly cable yelling shows.
Wexler has put his political machine behind Arthur Anderson, a soft-spoken African American professor who is challenging LePore for supervisor of elections. Wexler is also spearheading a lawsuit alleging that the touch-screen voting machines in Palm Beach County and 14 other Florida counties are unconstitutional because they leave no paper trail for individual ballots. They can't be subject to a manual recount, as Florida law requires, he argues.
The touch-screen machines have ignited controversy across the country. They have some obvious virtues, such as preventing voters from accidentally voting twice in a single race. They work like ATMs. Slip in a plastic card, see your choices, touch the screen. Critics argue that the software in the machine could be accidentally or deliberately corrupted, and California has already decertified one brand of machine (different from that used in Florida) after a rash of problems in recent elections.
LePore says the machines have been used successfully in more than 150 local and state elections since 2002, including, she notes pointedly, "one in which Mr. Wexler was reelected. Does that mean the machines work?"
LePore and Wexler used to be friends. No more. Her name is the first among the defendants in his federal suit. And he hasn't forgotten the 2000 election. The congressman says, "I think it's fair to say Theresa LePore's mistake resulted in the wrong man becoming president."
When designing the ballot in 2000, LePore faced a dilemma. Florida had made it easier for fringe candidates to get on the presidential ballot. She had to find a place not only for George W. Bush and Al Gore and their running mates, and Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan and Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, but also for six other candidates and their running mates. She feared that the conventional approach, putting the names on the left, with punch holes on the right, would result in type too small to be seen by the many retirees of Palm Beach County.
She decided to use a "facing page ballot" (the term "butterfly ballot" is a media invention, she says) in which the candidates would be distributed across two facing pages, with punch holes in the center and arrows pointing to the holes from either side. Such ballots had been used in elections in several states, even in Palm Beach County. She mailed a sample to various local officials and no one squawked.
Bush's name came first on the left page, with Dick Cheney's name in smaller type below, and Gore came second, paired with running mate Joe Lieberman. But although Bush's name corresponded to the first hole, Gore's corresponded to the third hole -- with an arrow pointing to it. The second hole was aligned with the name of Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan, over on the right page.
The vast majority of Palm Beach County voters did, in fact, grasp the design. But the error rate was still alarmingly high. Lois Frankel, at that time the Democratic leader of the Florida House, believes she was one of the thousands of voters who accidentally punched the hole for Buchanan. The conservative commentator and frequent critic of Israel received several thousand unexpected votes in the predominantly Democratic county, many from heavily Jewish precincts -- votes that were probably intended for Gore and his Jewish running mate.
Thousands more voters, for reasons that remain unclear, punched more than one hole. Perhaps they thought they needed to vote for both the presidential candidate and his running mate. Or perhaps they felt that there were two holes aligned with the name of the candidate they favored. A subsequent analysis of these "overvotes" by the Palm Beach Post concluded that, after factoring in overvotes probably meant for Bush, the butterfly ballot cost Gore 6,607 net votes.
"Not many people can say they changed the history of the world, but Theresa LePore can say that," says Frankel.
LePore doesn't agree. Sure, she says, more people left the polls in Florida thinking they'd voted for Gore than for Bush. But there were other voting problems in Florida. Duval County had another confusing ballot design, with presidential candidates listed on two separate pages. Thousands of voters cast two votes for president.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company