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Friday, 10 November, 2000, 17:24 GMT
Q and A: What went wrong in Florida?
With allegations of voting irregularities, legal action already under way calling for a fresh ballot in Palm Beach County, and a recount extended into next week, BBC News Online examines what went wrong in the sunshine state and asks what happens next.

Why is Florida so important?

Whoever wins Florida will become the 43rd president of the United States. Both Democrat Vice President Al Gore and Republican Governor George W Bush need to win Florida's 25 electoral votes to secure a majority of the 538 electoral college to reach the White House.

Why is there a recount?

Under Florida's electoral law, a recount is mandatory if the results of the two candidates differ by 0.5% or less. Mr Bush took Florida with a majority of less than 2,000 votes. An automatic recount of some six million votes was ordered, but this process has been further complicated by allegations of voting irregularities.

In Palm Beach County, one of Florida's 67 electoral divisions, the authorities have agreed to count ballots from three precincts by hand on Saturday 11 November. Democrats have also asked for recounts in Broward, Volusia and Dade counties, which would include Miami. Altogether the four disputed counties represent about 1.78 million votes, about a third of Florida's total.

What kind of irregularities are being alleged?

In Palm Beach the layout of the actual ballot paper is being blamed for thousands of miscast votes. Designed with larger print to help elderly voters, the ballot paper appears to have confused many people into voting for the wrong candidate.

The right-wing Reform Party candidate, Pat Buchanan, won 3,704 votes in the staunchly Democratic county - which is more than 2,500 votes more than he polled in any of the other 66 electoral divisions in Florida.

Officials also point to the high level of spoilt votes in Palm Beach County. An estimated 19,000 votes were disregarded because they contained names for more than one candidate or had no candidate selected at all.

The design of the Palm Beach ballot paper was not used anywhere else in Florida.

In Woodville, civil rights workers believe some voters were intimidated by a Florida highway patrol roadblock set up to check drivers' licenses near the local polling station.

There are complaints that voters were unable to vote because polling stations were closed and no instructions were posted about alternative sites. One polling station remained closed all day. In Hallandale Beach some voters said they were told the election would take place the next day.

Some of the voter rolls were inaccurate. Some voters complained that their names were incorrectly omitted from the voter rolls. Some voters were turned away because they were registered as dead.

How significant are these irregularities?

They could be decisive. Regardless of the result of the recount, legal challenges relating to the design of the ballot papers could take weeks to resolve. Already three Palm Beach residents, who claimed they voted mistakenly, have filed a case with the state circuit court questioning the validity of the poll result.

Some Democratic Party supporters are calling for a fresh presidential ballot in Palm Beach County, because of what they describe as a "major breakdown in the electoral process".

How will Florida's courts react to these lawsuits?

Legal experts say there has never been a successful legal challenge to a presidential election result on the basis of alleged irregularities. But, the results of elections to less exalted public offices have, on occasion, been overturned.

The 1997 Miami mayoral election was overturned after evidence of vote fraud. There was no revote, instead the judge used powers to adjust the result based on statistical evidence as to the number of votes each candidate would have received.

It is possible that a judge could call for a revote in the most disputed precincts. Alternatively, those who did vote might be called in to recast their ballot.

With the eyes of the whole world focused on the outcome of the Palm Beach ballot, Florida's judiciary will need to ensure that it is not guilty of political bias.

What about the postal ballots?

With the margin of victory so narrow, the votes of an estimated 2,300 non-resident voters could be crucial. Army personnel and Americans living overseas are entitled to vote. Their ballot papers have to be date stamped on election day, 7 November, and have up to 10 days to be sent from all over the world.

Assuming the margin of victory in the Florida recount remains very close, then both candidates are likely to await the outcome of the postal ballot.

With legal challenges pending and postal votes still in transit, a final result of the Florida ballot is highly unlikely to be declared before 17 November.

When will the recount be finished?

The man responsible for the vote count in Florida, Division of Elections director Clay Roberts originally said the recount should be completed by the end of Thursday 9 November. But this has now been extended as 14 counties failed to complete the task.

They now have until Tuesday 14 November to finish the count. The state is also legally bound to continue counting postal votes until Friday 17 November.

How does the recount work?

Florida uses punch-card ballots which are read and counted by computer. Each of Florida's 67 counties have been running the ballots through the computers again, with representatives of both parties looking on.

The county election supervisors then report their results to the state Division of Elections in Tallahassee, which compiles the state-wide total.

Who will win?

Republicans say they are confident of victory. The Democrats say the race is too close to call and will wait and see.

Either way the battalions of lawyers who have been dispatched by both sides to scrutinise the recount as well as the vast press corps which has descended on Palm Beach County, will ensure that neither candidate is likely to be able to claim that they are the undisputed winner.

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