November 21, 2000

Vote Counting Persists as Court Hears Arguments

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Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga ruled against allowing a revote in Palm Beach County yesterday, to the disappointment of Prof. Walter R. Mebane Jr., government. Mebane spent last week in Florida as an expert witness in a class-action lawsuit against the county’s Election Canvassing Commission.

“The plaintiffs in this action cite no case law authority in the history of our nation, nor can the Court find any, where a revote or new election was permitted in a Presidential race,” Labarga explained in his statement denying the revote request.

The county has been the center of debate since Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan garnered what most experts considered an abnormally high 3,407 votes there compared to totals ranging from 563 to 1,010 votes in neighboring counties that were politically similar but did not use the so-called “butterfly ballot.”

The two named plaintiffs in the class-action suit, Palm Beach County residents Beverly Rogers and Ray Kaplan, said they and many others were confused by the ballot and accidentally voted for Buchanan, creating an artificially high total for the Reform Party candidate.

Both plaintiffs have already appealed Labarga’s decision.

“Of course, [yesterday’s ruling] does increase our doubt about what may happen,” Mebane added.

Mebane was in court in West Palm Beach last week as 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. Skhon and Michael C. Herron, Center for Basic Research in the Social Sciences, Harvard University, all of whom are working pro-bono.

While in Florida, Mebane wrote a sworn affidavit that was submitted into evidence last Thursday. The affidavit contains data from a paper entitled “Voting Irregularities in Palm Beach County” which he and his four colleagues released on Nov. 11 at .

According to Mebane, Florida law gives judges the power to reallocate votes if they feel election results are genuinely invalid. Once the case goes to appellate court, it will most likely be brought before the Florida Supreme Court, which could ultimately send the case back to Labarga with instructions to specifically hear arguments for a revote.

“Had Judge Labarga ruled it was constitutional to hold a revote, the other side would have appealed anyway,” he said. “We’ve been in contact with the lead attorney in the case, David Krathen, and are in the process of cleaning our data and adding to the affidavit.”

Labarga reflected on the difficult decision ahead of him last week. “I think I have as deep an appreciation for the right to vote as anyone else in this country,” Labarga, a Cuban immigrant, said. “My parents brought me here so I’d have that right. If I rule the Constitution does not allow for a [revote], it will be the hardest decision I ever make.”

The case has been criticized by Republicans who have called for a quick end to the Florida controversy and have accused Democrats of resorting to endless lawsuits in order to win the election.

According to the abstract of the paper Mebane and his colleagues published, “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 mulitple presidential candidates,” the authors concluded.

“Our data shows that the irregularities not only existed but were costing people their votes,” Mebane said. In the paper, Palm Beach County was compared with every other American county and was found to be a statistical outlier.

Mebane said that he and the rest of the team have spoken since learning of Labarga’s ruling and plan to stay involved until the final election results are in. He added that he may remain in Ithaca over Thanksgiving break rather than visiting family members in order to be ready if called to testify during the appeal.

Archived article by Katherine Davis