George W. Bush and Al Gore are just a few hundred votes apart in Florida's presidential election, but more than 180,000 Floridians who went to the polls on Nov. 7 could have just stayed home. Their ballots were tossed out because they chose more than one presidential candidate, didn't choose one at all or their vote didn't register. NEXT: RACIAL DEMOGRAPHICS
According to an Associated Press survey of Florida's 67 county elections supervisors, the vote for a presidential candidate wasn't counted on 180,299 of the ballots. That's nearly 3 percent of the 6,138,567 ballots that Florida citizens turned in. Experts say the national average usually runs at less than 2 percent, depending on the type of voting method used. "It's a dirty little secret of American democracy. It would be hard to say we've never had an election without miscounted, invalid or otherwise irregular ballots," said Rogan Kersh, professor of political science at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University. "Simple human error is a presence in every statewide and most local elections. Anybody who thinks we have completely reliable numbers is wrong."
The problem in Florida largely can be traced to paper punch card ballots, which have helped derail the presidential election and added "chad" to the national lexicon. Some counties had startlingly large numbers of ballots that weren't counted. All three of these used punch cards:
 In Miami-Dade County, 28,601 ballots were not counted in the presidential race, out of about 654,044 cast. (4.37%),
 In Palm Beach County, home of the controversial "butterfly ballot," 29,702 votes weren't counted out of 462,888 total. (6.42%),
 In Jacksonville and surrounding Duval County, 26,909 votes went uncounted out of 291,545 cast. (9.23%)
It is possible that some of those people didn't want to vote for president and were only concerned with other races down the ballot. But most of the ballots that weren't counted were ones on which someone messed up. The number of ballots tossed out statewide increased this year from 1992 when just over 2 percent of the presidential ballots weren't counted, according to an analysis by the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. In 1996, 2.5 percent of ballots in Florida were disqualified.
In Jacksonville, 21,942 ballots were nullified when voters punched their ballots for two candidates for president. An additional 4,967 did not vote for president or did not punch the ballot hard enough for their vote to be registered, according to a spokeswoman for Duval County Supervisor of Elections John Stafford. Those disqualified ballots represented about 9 percent of the ballots cast.
There was also a problem in Gadsden County, a rural area west of Tallahassee, where more than 2,000 presidential votes were thrown out -- 12 percent of the those cast in the small county. There, the county canvassing board recounted some of the rejected ballots, something Republicans complained about in the county where Democrats outnumber Republicans 9-to-1.
Leon County, where the state capital, Tallahassee, is located, was another story altogether. There were only 181 votes that weren't counted, just 0.2 percent of the total. That's largely because Leon and 14 other Florida counties use an optical scan system in which voters fill in a bubble with a pen instead of punching a hole in a card. Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho said that when considering high numbers of discounted ballots elsewhere, "You are going to find right off the bat that they use punch card technology." Election lawyer Kenneth Gross, who worked for Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign, said the problem is that holes on the cards aren't always clean. "If there's any paper hanging, the machine tends to push it back into the hole and then records it as a no vote," Gross said.
Rep. Tom Feeney, an Orlando-area Republican who will be sworn in next week as speaker of the Florida House, said the system of voting will be a hot topic in the next session. "When this cools down ... I'm hoping that what we will do is a comprehensive review of the elections process," Feeney said. "That would include taking a look at how we conduct elections in 49 other states, maybe even considering what they do in other democracies." Part of the reason counties use punch cards is that they're cheap. Sancho estimated it could take $5 million to switch to a different system, depending on the size of the county.
The punch card system has been thrown out altogether in Massachusetts, where a judge overturned a congressional race because of voters' confusion about the ballot. "When you have paper, you're going to have problems," Kersh said. "It strikes me as peculiar we continue to use them."