Huge manual count in Palm Beach county could take 3-4 days : LUSENET : TB2K spinoff uncensored : One Thread

Huge manual count could take 3-4 days

By George Bennett, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 13, 2000

WEST PALM BEACH -- The road to the White House may have taken a decisive turn here early Sunday when a fatigued and divided Palm Beach County Elections Canvassing Board ordered a hand recount of the county's 462,657 presidential ballots.

With Republican George W. Bush hanging on to an unofficial 288-vote lead in the race for Florida's 25 decisive electoral votes, the prospect of scouring the Democratic-leaning county's ballots for a fourth time was slammed by Republicans on the Sunday talk show circuit and will be challenged today at 9:30 a.m. in federal court in Miami.

The canvassing board, meanwhile, plans to meet here at 10 a.m. today to plan one of the largest manual recounts in state history.

Elections Supervisor Theresa LePore will propose hiring 100 people to count ballots over a three- or four-day period, said canvassing board attorney Leon St. John. The recount would take place at the county's Emergency Operations Center, St. John said.

The canvassing board ordered the recount at about 2:15 a.m. Sunday after a long day of ballot scrutiny that was punctuated by testy exchanges among partisan lawyers. The board's 2-1 vote came after a hand count of 1 percent of county ballots -- primarily in precincts targeted by the Democrats -- produced a 19-vote net gain for Vice President Al Gore.

A machine count of the entire county Saturday night yielded a net gain of 39 votes for Gore.

Bush began the weekend with an unofficial 327-vote lead in Florida.

The countywide recount faces at least two legal obstacles. In addition to the federal injunction sought by Republicans, lawyers Sunday voiced concern about a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline for Florida counties to submit recount results to state elections officials.

County Judge Charles Burton, the chairman of the county canvassing board and the dissenter in the recount vote, asked the state Division of Elections on Sunday whether the Tuesday deadline can be extended.

Volusia County, one of five other counties undergoing or planning recounts, plans to file a lawsuit today seeking an extension.

Volusia and Polk counties also were recounting ballots Sunday. Osceola County today will consider a Democratic request to hand count a 1-percent sampling of its ballots.

A manual recount is to begin today in Broward County and another is to be considered Tuesday in Miami-Dade.

But no county's vote total has drawn as much international scrutiny as Palm Beach County's.

The Gore campaign has claimed the county's ballot design was illegally confusing and cost the Democratic candidate thousands of votes.

Democrats have laid the groundwork for legal challenges to the ballot.

But they believe a hand recount in Palm Beach County could give Gore enough new votes to win the state without resorting to court challenges.

Manual counts tend to add votes to all candidates because partially punched ballots that go uncounted by a light-reading machine often can be identified as votes upon human inspection.

Gore carried the county by a 58.2-to-33.1 percent margin on election night, so he is likely to pick up a larger share than Bush of any additional votes.

Democrats suggested Gore could make big gains after he picked up 19 votes in the 1 percent sampling.

"The findings we found this evening . . . could affect the election and we should have a manual recount," said canvassing board member Carol Roberts, a Democratic county commissioner.

"When you multiply it out, 100 percent of the vote would lead to a gain of 1,900 votes for Al Gore, an amount that could well change the result of the election," Gore campaign spokesman Douglas Hattaway said immediately after the canvassing board's vote.

The precincts selected by Gore supporters for the hand recount tended to be more Democratic than the rest of the county and had a significantly higher number of ballots that went uncounted during machine tallies.

For Saturday's hand recount, elections workers spent more than 10 hours examining ballots, often making judgment calls on whether a particular one had been punched or not.

Even before the exercise was complete, Republicans blasted the procedure as too subjective to be fair.

Former Secretary of State James Baker resumed the criticism later Sunday.

"You don't determine the winner on the basis of this flawed process where in four predominantly Democratic counties, the election officials make the judgment," Baker said.

On NBC's Meet The Press, Baker said the Bush campaign would drop its federal suit against the manual recounts if Democrats agreed to stick with the results of statewide machine counts and the tabulating later this week of absentee ballots from foreign countries.

"Whoever wins, then, wins," Baker said. "We will accept the result."

Gore adviser Warren Christopher, also a former Secretary of State, appeared on the same show and did not embrace the GOP proposal. But he said he believed the disputed election would be settled "in a matter of days" rather than weeks.

The recount plan the canvassing board will consider today calls for all the county's ballots to be examined in a matter of days even though the 1 percent recount had 20 staffers and took more than 10 hours, attorney St. John said.

A preliminary proposal calls for daily back-to-back 7-hour shifts of 50 workers apiece beginning Tuesday, St. John said.

The workers, who St. John said might be recruited from the county's jury pool, would receive training and be paid $7 or $8 an hour.

While the ballot counters would work 7 hours at a time, St. John said canvassing board members would be on duty the full 14 hours each day because they are needed to make rulings on questionable ballots.

Under those plans, the recount could be complete by Friday, which is also the deadline for counting absentee ballots received from Floridians living in foreign countries.

Those ballots are traditionally dominated by military personnel and have favored Republican presidential candidates since 1980. Slightly more than 2,000 such ballots were cast in the 1996 presidential race.

A survey of counties by The Palm Beach Post showed at least 8,198 of those overseas ballots have not been returned.

How many will be returned by the deadline is unknown.

"I'd like to get this done as soon as possible," said Commissioner and canvassing board member Roberts, who pushed the hardest early Sunday for the manual recount.

She was not unmindful of the role she and the canvassing board could play in determining the next president.

"It's an awing experience to be part of American history and to be able to impact American history this way," Roberts said. "It's a scary feeling."

Palm Beach Post news services contributed to this story.

-- (The@2000.election), November 13, 2000

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