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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Another County's Recount Casts New Cloud Over Sunshine State

Glitches: A computer took 16,000 votes from Gore and gave Bush 8,500. Error was caught and fixed.

November 11, 2000|SCOTT GLOVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DELAND, Fla. — Volusia County, best known for its Daytona International Speedway, has emerged as yet another battleground in the fight for the presidency.

Suspected ballot theft led authorities to cordon off the Volusia County election office early Wednesday with yellow police tape. It was a false alarm, but a raft of other apparent irregularities--including a case in which a clerk mistakenly drove off with a bag full of ballots--prompted election officials here to agree to recount the ballots again today. This time by hand.

"There is so much at stake here," said Judge Michael McDermott, a member of the canvassing board that ordered the recount. "So, we're not only going to look under every rock, we're going to look under every pebble."

County workers are scheduled to begin scrutinizing more than 186,000 ballots at 8 a.m. today. They plan to work through the weekend and hope to be done by Tuesday afternoon so results of the cliffhanger election might finally become, well, final.

A hand count of ballots also will begin today in at least three precincts in Palm Beach County, where about 1% of the 460,000 votes will be examined. If enough ballots in the sample are found to be improperly tabulated, the officials will order a hand count for Palm Beach County as well.

Yet another hand recount has been ordered for Monday in select precincts in Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale. And the canvassing board in Miami-Dade County will meet Tuesday to consider a similar request there.

Meanwhile, a source told Associated Press that Bush late Friday authorized James A. Baker III, his representative in Florida, to consider filing a lawsuit to block the hand-counting of ballots.

But in Volusia County, the local canvassing board Thursday ordered the recount--actually a re-recount--after the Florida Democratic Party sent a written request alleging that "numerous problems transpired which call into question the accuracy and veracity of Volusia County's returns for the offices of president and vice president of the United States."

The Democrats cited "dramatic inconsistencies" in the initial vote count. The county endured roller-coaster vote swings election night after a computer glitch incorrectly subtracted 16,000 votes from Democrat Vice President Al Gore and gave Republican Texas Gov. George W. Bush an unearned 8,500 votes.

The computer snafu was caught, and the correct tallies issued, on election night. Gore won the county by about 15,000 votes.

But the problems weren't over. Later that night, shortly before dawn Wednesday, McDermott ordered the office sealed after a Republican observer charged that someone appeared to be carting off a bag of ballots. Investigators later determined that the bag contained only women's clothing, and the police tape was removed by midafternoon Wednesday.

The next day, a precinct clerk showed up with a bag of already counted ballots in the back seat of his car, sparking another flurry of concern. After investigating, election officials said the clerk had failed to remove the bag, which he had legitimately been transporting the night before, because it was similar in color to the upholstery in his car.

Accused of election improprieties in the past, county officials appear intent to show that they have nothing to hide.

The town--known for a pace so slow that some young people call it "Deadland" rather than DeLand--has put out the welcome mat.

A sign a block from the besieged election building in DeLand's historic downtown directs visitors to "Media Parking." On the front door is another sign: "Canvassing in Progress. Public Welcome."

In preparation for today's hand count, county workers Friday were counting ballots on which inexperienced or confused voters had written "Bush" or "Gore" as their choice for president. Because the machine does not count write-ins, those ballots could raise the tally for either or both of the presidential candidates.

Douglas A. Daniels, one of the lawyers who drafted the recount request for the Democrats, said the process already had produced four more votes for Gore.

"I've heard that there could be a significant number more," he said.

At election headquarters, sheriff's deputies and agents from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement watched over county workers as they sifted through the ballots. They guarded the documents as they were loaded onto a truck for the trip to the county's administration building for today's count.

After the truck trip, which was about half a block, McDermott pulled open the back door of the vehicle as two observers--one Democrat and one Republican--looked on.

He wanted no doubts that the truck was empty, that no ballots had been left behind.

"Everybody satisfied?" McDermott asked dryly, pulling the door shut behind him.

Inside, Deanie Lowe, the county's election supervisor, instructed a new shift of about 50 county workers about the write-in count, which was expected to go into the night Friday. As they prepared to get started, she issued a final directive for the mostly female troops.

"Let's have everybody put their purses over there in plain sight, by the deputy," Lowe said. "Just so there are no questions."

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