Election result could swing on hand tally

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Election result could swing on hand tally today

By Scott Hiaasen and Marc Caputo, Palm Beach Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 11, 2000

WEST PALM BEACH -- Forget the 19,000 double votes for president. Put aside the smattering of ballots for Pat Buchanan in Jewish districts.

The real focus of today's manual recount is a block of 10,361 phantom Palm Beach County ballots that named no president in Tuesday's election.

If the Democrats can somehow turn a handful of those non-votes into Al Gore votes, Florida's 25 Electoral College votes go to him.

And then Gore goes to the White House with more than the required 270 electoral votes.

"There's no way all those people didn't vote for president," said Monte Friedkin, head of Palm Beach County's Democratic Party. "No offense, but do you really think that people wanted to vote for the clerk of courts but not the leader of our country?"

The only way to really check, Friedkin said, is with today's hand recount of nearly 4,300 ballots. By eyeballing each ballot from three specially targeted precincts -- areas with high numbers of blank presidential ballots or double votes -- Democrats hope to spot signs that the machines couldn't detect.

The Democrats hope to find so many irregularities that the canvassing board will feel compelled to recount by hand all 462,657 ballots in Palm Beach County. There are no laws that specify how many problems would be needed to justify a recount.

That prospect terrifies Republicans, who promise to fight to protect Texas Gov. George W. Bush's slender lead in the state.

"Al Gore should just move on," said Tucker Eskew, senior communications adviser for Bush's campaign. "There's a reason we've moved to machine counts. They reduce human error, they're more accurate and more efficient than people."

The GOP is suspicious of the Gore campaign's requests for recounts here and in Broward, Miami-Dade and Volusia counties -- all places where Gore won big. The Gore campaign says the counties were chosen because they were rife with complaints.

The stakes increased with the results of a state-mandated recount of Tuesday's vote that narrowed Bush's lead in Florida from more than 1,700 votes to 327. Gore picked up 600 votes in Palm Beach County alone, causing the GOP to ask for a third electronic recount today. It will happen at the same time as the manual recount.

Both parties will have representatives in the recount rooms, which are under the supervision of the county's canvassing board.

The three-member board, consisting only of Democrats, granted the recount requests Thursday as protesters and lawsuits against Palm Beach County's "butterfly ballot" piled up. The suits claim the ballot book was illegal and so confusing that it led many voters to mistakenly vote for Pat Buchanan instead of Gore or vote for two candidates.

With this backdrop, the Rev. Jesse Jackson plans to lead a protest march through West Palm Beach on Monday -- the day before a circuit court judge is scheduled to have a hearing on whether to lift an injunction, issued Thursday, that prevents the results from being certified.

Gore supporters say the number of discarded presidential votes -- 29,502 -- in Palm Beach County is clear evidence the ballot was flawed. In the 1996 election, about half that amount was thrown out.

With so few votes separating the two candidates, the outcome of the presidential election may indeed lie in the hands of the county workers who will spend today picking one by one through the ballots -- especially if they find "dimples" or other marks suggesting that uncounted votes were intended for Gore.

By law, the Democrats get to choose which three precincts will be recounted, and Friday night the Gore team and its lawyers were sifting through precinct data hunting for an advantage. The 15 precincts they focused on were largely Democratic and contained high numbers of problem votes, either uncounted ones or votes that were disqualified for choosing more than one candidate.

Places like Precinct 82, a largely black neighborhood along Lake Mangonia in West Palm Beach. According to the results of Wednesday's recount, this neighborhood voted overwhelmingly for Gore over Bush: 1,156 to 21. Buchanan got 18 votes. But 150 ballots, nearly 11 percent of the precinct, recorded more than one presidential vote. Twelve blank presidential ballots were also found.

Some of the other precincts under consideration had as many as 184 blank "under-votes," or ballots with no candidate's hole punched, for president. The campaign also was comparing demographic data with the poll results, hoping to show that districts with largely elderly voters had the most problems.

"It ain't rocket science," said Lance Block, a West Palm Beach lawyer hired by the Gore campaign.

In addition to finding new Gore votes -- or Bush votes, for that matter -- the recount in such precincts could bolster the case for a legal challenge to the ballot. However, the head of Florida's Division of Elections, Republican Clay Roberts, said Friday that the county's ballot design complied with the law.

In Broward and Miami-Dade counties, Gore's team asked to recount only the under-votes -- 6,686 and 10,750 votes, respectively. Broward County agreed Friday to only a 1 percent recount, and Miami-Dade is expected to take up an identical request Tuesday.

Officials in Volusia County also began a recount Friday of all 184,018 ballots cast there.

The Republicans are certain the Gore camp is trying to stall to prevent the election from being certified.

Expect the wrangling to begin promptly at 9 a.m., when Palm Beach County's canvassing board convenes. The three board members will consider the half-dozen or so protests to the ballot they have received so far, then Democratic leaders will announce the precincts they want counted, said the board's chairman, Palm Beach County Judge Charles Burton.

The board will recount at least three precincts, or 1 percent of the vote, about 4,300 ballots. The board could decide to count a combination of precincts requested by the party and by Elaine Bloom, the Democratic candidate who is challenging her narrow loss to U.S. Rep. E. Clay Shaw. As of Friday night, Bloom and the Gore campaign had not coordinated their precinct requests.

Then the board will go over the rules. Election workers and other county employees will assemble in teams to review the paper ballots for irregularities -- two holes punched, partial punches or "dimple" ballots with depressions but no holes. Disputed ballots will be brought to the board members, who will laboriously examine them and try to determine the voter's intent.

Under tight security, the recount probably will last all day, and it could drag into Sunday.

Since the election, the ballots have been locked in several large metal boxes that look like file cabinets. Each has a locking rod securing the front and a breakable tab to detect tampering. Burton said the ballots were under 24-hour guard by sheriff's deputies.

During today's recount, the Democrats are up against a formidable opponent: Florida history. Elections here are rarely decided by manual recounts.

Meantime, West Palm Beach police are bracing for a flurry of downtown activity today. In addition to the protesters, gawkers and media converging on the county office building for the recount, area residents are expected to stream into the city for the weekly Green Market outside city hall and the Veterans Day parade.

The sheriff's office beefed up security Thursday inside the county office building and planned to continue stationing extra deputies there today.

"We're maintaining a strong presence until Palm Beach County is out of the spotlight," said Capt. Terry Rowe.

Staff writers Susan Spencer-Wendel and Scott McCabe and staff researcher Sammy Alzofon contributed to this story.

-- (election@news.2000), November 12, 2000


The election could still go either way.

-- Who the winner is (is_still@not.known), November 12, 2000.

If nothing else, this is giving everyone a glimpse into the psyches of both campaigns.

-- I'm Here, I'm There (I'm Everywhere@so.beware), November 12, 2000.

If this recount is enough to give the only truly presidential candidate a victory, we will need a 4th recount.

-- shrubby (not@very.presidential), November 12, 2000.

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