TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — At 10:34 a.m., the fax arrived from Marion County, horse country in central Florida: "We do NOT know how long this will take."
Minutes later, there was another from Duval County, near the Georgia line: "This is tantamount to a guess."
And one from Bradford County, near the college town of Gainesville: "We are in a bit of limbo."
One by one, the messages--more than 100 pages from more than 30 of Florida's 67 counties--kept the fax machine humming Saturday at the Leon County Courthouse here. They shared one theme: If Florida counties resume recounting tens of thousands of undervotes--ballots on which tallying machines didn't register a choice for president--then the nation should expect widespread confusion and torment among election officials.
The Florida Supreme Court, in a stunning but brief victory for Vice President Al Gore, declared Friday that weighing undervotes was the only way to ensure that every vote counted in this tight election. At least 43,000 of Florida's 6 million votes are at stake--an enormous number considering that Bush's lead, depending on whom you listen to, may be as little as 154 votes.
But on Saturday--after a host of Florida counties had made considerable headway--a divided U.S. Supreme Court temporarily halted the operations. The justices will hear arguments Monday and decide in coming days whether the manual recounts should continue.
Sandwiched between those two rulings was an order from Leon County Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis that the counties fax him an outline of their recount efforts.
And the faxes that arrived Saturday suggested that some election officials have no idea which votes are valid or how they should go about finding them. They were busy consulting attorneys, deputizing judges and writing new software to retrain their voting machines--furious on-again, off-again operations that could decide whether Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush becomes the next president.
Some of the faxes were terse but pleasant--including everything from a copy of the oath swearing impartiality that counters would take to the policy banning beverages from the counting room. "See attached sample of actual undervote!" Brevard County wrote.
Others were lengthy and testy, such as the fax from Duval County, which reported that it needed 800 man-hours just to find its undervotes--and that it "undertakes the task of counting . . . with grave concerns about the reliability and accuracy of any process for such a recount."
In Polk County, election workers were told at the annual office Christmas party Friday night that they needed to begin sorting through 170,000 ballots Saturday. They abruptly packed up after the U.S. Supreme Court order.
"It's the craziest thing I've ever seen," said Audrey Williams, deputy supervisor of elections in DeSoto County.
In its ruling, the state Supreme Court relied on the counties to determine the intent of the voter on each ballot.
In some cases, the recount effort that got underway Saturday was proving painless. Leon County Court Clerk Dave Lang reported that the count of Miami-Dade County's ballots--which under court order was taking place in Tallahassee--was going "smooth as glass."
In an interview Saturday, Gore attorney David Boies downplayed the concerns about the standards applied in examining the ballots.
"The fact that individuals may come up with conflicting decisions doesn't mean there wasn't intent by the voter," he said. "Every group that has ever looked at these things, whether Miami-Dade or Palm Beach County, has figured it out [for itself]. This is not mysticism. This is a simple vote count."
But the courts left many of the administrative decisions of the recount to the counties where the votes were cast, leading to a host of problems.
An overriding concern came from counties that had never separated undervotes from the rest of the pile. The counties were resorting to wildly disparate methods for simply locating the votes that they would recount.
Election Systems & Software Inc.--an Omaha, Neb., company that builds vote counting machines--mailed microchips Saturday to 15 Florida counties, said Todd V. Urosevich, vice president of customer service. Those chips will train voting machines to isolate the presidential race and sift out undervotes so they can be counted.
Others had consulted with computer engineers and learned that their vote counting machines could not be taught to search for undervotes, so they were planning to sort through every vote by hand to find them.
That effort was underway in Bradford County, where election supervisor Terry L. Vaughan explained that officials there were looking--by hand--for 40 undervotes among 9,417 ballots contained in 21 bins.
"We are facing a substantial logistical problem," Vaughan wrote. "The canvassing board has the most difficult task of finding '40 needles located among 21 haystacks.' "
The counties reported a variety of other problems.