November 14, 2000

Election Battle Rages in Court

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Prof. Walter R. Mebane Jr., government, traveled to Florida yesterday to prepare testimony as a possible expert witness for Democrats challenging the legality of Palm Beach County’s now-famous “butterfly” ballots.

“This all happened very quickly, over the past couple of days,” Mebane said.

Mebane is part of a five-man team of expert witnesses that includes Jonathan N. Ward grad, Prof. Kenneth W. Shotts, political science, Northwestern University, and Profs. Jasjeet S. Sekhon and Michael C. Herron, Center for Basic Research in the Social Sciences, Harvard University.

“We’re all doing this pro-bono. It’s not yet clear whether any of us will be called to testify. It may be the judge will not allow testimony. Who knows — the whole hearing may be over in 30 seconds for some technical legal reason,” Mebane said.

The Democrats’ action is part of the wide-ranging effort on behalf of both parties to capture Florida’s crucial 25 Electoral College votes, which have been in limbo since Election Day one week ago. That night, the state was first declared for Vice President Al Gore, then for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, then finally left as too close to call.

Florida’s votes are essential for either candidate to garner the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.

Prof. Isaac Kramnick, chair of the government department, said Mebane would be working with the legal teams for the six Palm Beach County voters who have filed suit on a number of issues including the layout of the ballot.

The county has been the epicenter of a political earthquake after some voters said they became confused and accidentally voted for Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan rather than Gore due to the ballot’s “butterfly” format.

Buchanan garnered 3,407 votes in Palm Beach County compared to totals ranging from 563 to 1,010 votes in neighboring counties that were politically similar but did not use the “butterfly” ballot.

Sekhon said the group is “trying hard to be non-partisan. The five of us are a politically diverse group, and the fact that we can agree on the empirical situation is I think a victory for positive social science.”

Mebane and his four colleagues authored a paper entitled “Voting Irregularities in Palm Beach County,” which was released Saturday at .

According to the paper’s abstract, “our analysis shows that in Palm Beach County, Buchanan did better in precincts that strongly supported Gore. In addition, we show that liberal precincts within Palm Beach County tended to have higher proportions of ballots that were not counted for the presidential election either because no holes were punched or multiple holes were punched.”

“This evidence supports the claim that the ballot format in Palm Beach County led some Gore supporters mistakenly to vote for Buchanan and, in some cases, to vote for multiple presidential candidates,” the authors concluded.

Amy Gershkoff ’02, a Republican Party activist and a student in Mebane’s course, Government 317: Campaigns and Elections, said she had read the paper and found it “interesting empirically. My guess is that the votes for Buchanan were in fact meant for Gore. If Prof. Mebane is going down to Florida to help prove that, he is probably right.”

While she saw Mebane’s involvement as academically important, Gershkoff, who has worked as a polling volunteer since the age of 15, said she does not support holding a re-vote in the county.

“What’s done is done,” she said. “This is not the first time people have made mistakes in the voting booth. I would say the same thing even if the tables were turned.”

Josh Roth ’03, publicity director for the Cornell Democrats, said he was “fully in support of efforts to count every vote that should count [in Palm Beach County], not only those Buchanan votes which were meant for Gore, but all those votes which are being re-counted by hand.”

“It definitely encourages the Cornell Democrats to know that someone from our university is down in Florida working on something we support,” he added.

Archived article by Katherine Davis