People here still ask: What if? What if that butterfly ballot hadn't been so confusing? There's a sense among many Democrats that they're living through an alternate history, a parallel reality created through a fluke in Palm Beach County in November 2000. And some are still furious.
"I've got the blood of over 500 men and women on my hands, because the war's my fault," says Theresa LePore. She's paraphrasing what people have said to her.
"Nine-eleven was my fault."
They're rare, these attacks on her, but they can be brutal. At an arts festival recently, LePore staffed an elections booth, demonstrating the new touch-screen voting machines. They have replaced the antiquated punch-card devices that produced the notorious hanging chads of the 2000 Florida recount. Three hecklers came out of nowhere.
"I should be tried for treason, I don't care about democracy, blah blah blah."
She tried to block it out. That has been her strategy for 31/2 years.
"I'm still getting hate mail. I'm still getting death threats," she says.
LePore, supervisor of elections for Palm Beach County, will forever be known as the woman who designed the so-called butterfly ballot that in all likelihood cost Al Gore thousands of votes in a state that George W. Bush officially carried by only 537.
The clamor died down for a couple of years but seems to be on the rise again. Recently a left-leaning election reform group began holding protests outside her office. And she is being sued in federal court, along with the Florida secretary of state and one other county supervisor of elections, by a U.S. congressman who doesn't trust those touch-screen voting machines. In the midst of it all, LePore has a pressing personal challenge: She's running for reelection.
"I have a job to do, and I intend to continue doing it," she says, and then adds something that, given all that has happened, comes as a surprise: "Besides, I enjoy what I do."
One of the many ironies of Theresa LePore's political notoriety is that she doesn't seem to be a political person at all. She was once registered as a Democrat but is now registered "no party," and the position of supervisor of elections has officially become nonpartisan. The job is her life. She got her first internship in the office in 1971, at the age of 16. The oldest of eight children, she went to junior college and then Florida Atlantic University, steadily working in the elections office and often at a second job. She's guarded about her private life -- her husband doesn't trust the media, she says, and won't give an interview -- and she says that when she's upset, "I talk to my dogs." Her claim to showing up for work routinely at 6 in the morning is buttressed by an e-mail sent to a reporter at 5:51 a.m.
She's tall, blond, with sharp facial features and wrists thickened with bracelets. When put on the spot (a deposition, a newspaper interview), she tends to adopt a stoical expression, her voice flat, almost monotonic. She's got her shields up. There's some anger there. And though she hides it, there's a lot of hurt.
She says, "I can't let it get to me. Because then they'll win. I feel that people who want to hurt other people want to see them hurt, and I refuse to let other people see that."
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.
There is a widespread belief in the African American community that many voters were wrongfully purged from voter rolls and that police tried to intimidate people with roadblocks near polling stations. Republicans had their own complaints, including the decision by TV networks to call Florida for Gore even as polls remained open in the Panhandle.
But the way events played out, all eyes on Election Day quickly turned to Palm Beach County. That morning, voters began howling. Panicked Democratic politicians descended on LePore's office. By that night, she was surrounded by lawyers, reporters, TV cameras. By the next day she was on live TV around the globe, and planeloads of Gore and Bush fixers were landing hourly at the airport.
"I call it my perfect storm -- without George Clooney," LePore says. "The whole 40 days or whatever it was is really a blur to me."
Carol Roberts, the feisty Democratic county commissioner who sat with LePore on the three-person canvassing board, recalls, "Theresa had had very little sleep. She lost 20 pounds during that period. She looked like hell. . . . She had bags under her eyes, she was wound tight as a drum."
LePore's friend Karen Clarke argues that LePore refused to be partisan during the recount, infuriating everyone on both sides.
Some close friends of LePore turned against her, including Jackie Winchester, the former supervisor of elections and LePore's mentor. But today Winchester acknowledges the flukish nature of the situation. Other elections officials have probably made worse mistakes without the whole world noticing, Winchester says.
"She was very unlucky."
LePore says she has apologized for the confusing ballot, but she quickly follows this with a string of exasperated statements:
"No good deed goes unpunished. I did it for a reason. Hindsight's 20/20. I'm sorry people were confused."
She's said these things so many times they've become like bumper stickers.
She repeatedly talks about voter error. On absentee ballots people are supposed to draw a simple line connecting two points, but instead they circle the name, or check it, or draw arrows to it, or cut it out from the ballot entirely with a knife. She's gotten ballots carefully sealed in an envelope but utterly blank. As a lifer in the election office, she knows the bitter truth: People find all manner of ways to botch a ballot.
"How many people looked at the back of their punch card to make sure the holes were punched through, like they were supposed to?" she says of the hanging-chad problem of 2000.
She accepts blame for not doing more voter education in 2000, and adds, "And the voters get the blame for not following instructions. I physically cannot be at every machine to see that the voters are following instructions."
In politics, there's an unwritten rule that voters must always be praised, that their wisdom must never be questioned. But you don't hear that from LePore. In the LePore Democracy, voting is an accident waiting to happen.
"I wish I had a 10th of the perceived power they claim I have," she says.
She doesn't actually have the authority to buy or modify voting machines. They were purchased by the county commission. The commission has already agreed to buy printers that can be attached to the machines and provide a paper trail -- but they won't be ready for this year's election.
The situation became more confounding last week with the disclosure that electronic voting machines used in Broward and Miami-Dade counties have a faulty auditing system, and each will need a laptop computer attached to it this fall. Each laptop will itself be vulnerable to flaws or fraud, Wexler says.
"This is bigger than a debacle," he says. "We now know without even casting a single vote in the 2004 general election there's an enormous problem."
LePore thinks Wexler's suit is not really about the machines but about punishment. Of her.
"It's obvious what's going on. It's me. It has nothing to do with the price of beans."
Federal Judge James Cohn held a hearing on Wexler's suit earlier this month in Fort Lauderdale, a rare chance for Wexler and LePore to occupy the same room. The judge heard an attorney for the state decry the plaintiffs' "fear mentality," "mania" and "paranoia." But the lawyers for Wexler et al. talked of strange quirks in the new touch-screen machines. In one special election with only two candidates, 134 people somehow went all the way to the polls and never recorded a vote. The suspicion is that there's something screwy with the machines.
After the hearing, Wexler held a news conference with his allies out on the sidewalk next to noisy Broward Boulevard. Among those with him were Anderson, the professor who is running for LePore's job.
"Every vote must count," Anderson said into the cameras. "We must have a verifiable paper trail." The professor is by nature low-key and earnest, which might make it hard for him to be heard in the amplified political arena of South Florida. There are two other candidates in the supervisor of elections race, Glenn MacLean and Ellie Whittey. But Anderson's got Wexler.
The congressman stood in the sun in jacket and tie and didn't break a sweat. He denied fear-mongering. He brought the suit in the calm of spring to avoid a November catastrophe, he said. He said of LePore and the other defendants, "Rather than trusting the voters . . . they perceive their statutory duty to be protecting the machines that they elected to purchase. Stubbornly, they've dug in."
LePore and Wexler managed to avoid each other all morning. At one point she said, laughing, "My attorney has to keep reminding me that it's a federal offense to threaten a congressman."
Even before the flap about the touch-screen machines, many people doubted that their votes would count. County Commissioner Addie Greene fears that her constituents, many of them African American, will simply stay home on Election Day. Anger is good, she said, but only if put to a good use.
"I want the anger to make them go back and make a lie out of the Bush administration. You will not do it again!" Greene says.
Trust is a precious commodity in a democracy. The voters have to trust the system. And LePore is now trusting her future to the voters. With her shields up.
"I'm always on guard," she says. "I used to be a very trusting person."
There's no easy way to predict what will happen in this particular election. LePore is far better known than any of her challengers, for better or worse. No one takes opinion polls at this level of the game. After all, it's just a race for the county supervisor of elections.