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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Florida County Widens Recount

Palm Beach Orders Hand Tally of All Its Votes; Bush Suit Delayed

Election: Net gain for Gore in sample precincts spurs decision, as officials agree to meet Monday to discuss procedure. Federal judge postponed decision on request to block recounts.

November 12, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK and MICHAEL FINNEGAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Election officials in Palm Beach County early today ordered a manual recount of about 460,000 ballots after a limited hand recount showed Al Gore picking up 19 votes. The hand count was conducted despite a lawsuit filed Saturday by George W. Bush, who sought to preserve his slim margin in the all-or-nothing state.

The order for a manual recount of all the county's ballots, hailed as a major victory by Democrats, came after a judge refused to grant an immediate hearing of Bush's suit. Under heavy security and a nation's anxious watch, election workers in Palm Beach County counted by hand about 4,600 disputed ballots from four precincts, representing about 1% of the county total.

Early this morning, after announcing Gore's gain, the three members of the local election review board engaged in a heated debate on live TV, punctuated by testy exchanges, cheering and catcalls from a roomful of partisans.

"If we were to assume the votes represent 1% of the counted ballots, and they were not picked up by the machine, then they would represent a total of 1,900 votes countywide that would not have been picked up," said County Commissioner Carol Roberts, a Democrat. She said that total would be enough to affect the outcome of the state's election--and perhaps decide the presidential race.

"I believe the only way we have to settle this is to have a manual recount," she said.

Roberts quickly received a second to her motion, but the vote was delayed when board Chairman Charles Burton countered with a motion of his own--to seek an advisory opinion from the state.

Roberts repeatedly called for a vote, only to be interrupted by members of the audience.

"We should be more fully informed before we take a motion that could affect this entire country," said Burton, a judge who was appointed to the bench by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of the Republican presidential candidate. But Burton finally gave in.

"She's calling the vote, and we ought to call the vote," he said.

As partisans continued shouting, the board voted, 2 to 1, in favor of the expanded count and agreed to reconvene Monday to discuss how to proceed. Voting with Roberts was a gaunt Theresa LePore, the elections supervisor who designed the county's controversial "butterfly" ballot.

Simultaneous to the limited hand count, officials conducted a second mechanical recount of all county ballots at the request of the Bush campaign. That resulted in a gain of 33 votes for Gore.

The contentious tone and drama of the impromptu debate was matched by high-level skirmishing between the two presidential campaigns, as the contest remained stubbornly undecided five days after the final votes were cast.

"At some point . . . Florida's voters, and indeed all Americans, are entitled to some finality in the election process," said James A. Baker III, Bush's Florida point man, in announcing the lawsuit.

Warren Christopher, Gore's election overseer, countered, "The importance of getting it right outweighs the importance of rushing to judgment."

Indeed, he noted, Gov. Bush had signed a 1997 law in Texas that made hand-counting preferable to a mechanical recount in election disputes. "This procedure is authorized under Florida law, under Texas law and under the law of many other jurisdictions," Christopher said.

Some of Bush's fellow Republicans chimed in as well, questioning the governor's decision to take the election dispute to court.

"The Bush people win if they're fighting against a new election," said Jim Pinkerton, a GOP strategist and former White House aide to Bush's father. "But they lose if they're fighting against a recount.

"The difference is people have kind of an intuitive sense that no election is perfect and you do the best you can to count and get it right. A new election is too much medicine," Pinkerton said. "But no one can argue against a fair recount of the election you already had." The escalating rhetoric between the two campaigns came as one Florida official warned of an "election meltdown," and opinion polls showed the public siding with Gore's position as the presidency teeters between him and Bush.

In two surveys issued Saturday, a majority of Americans opposed a Gore concession before all the Florida votes are counted. The process will take at least several more days, as absentee ballots have until Friday to trickle in from overseas.

The hand counting of roughly 4,000 ballots in Palm Beach County got underway Saturday afternoon as a cordon of sheriff's deputies stood guard. Elsewhere, Volusia County officials spent the day scrutinizing one-by-one hundreds of write-in ballots to determine if they should count. At the end of the day, Gore had gotten five additional votes and Bush had picked up one.

A more thorough hand tabulation of about 185,000 ballots is expected to begin there today.

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