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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

In Fla. County, It's a Circus Outside, a Matter of 'Chads' Inside

Election: Palm Beach gets down to the serious business of recounting presidential ballots. The critical tally drew mobs of media and bystanders.

November 12, 2000|MIKE CLARY and MEG JAMES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Inside a small county election office, history was made Saturday--one ballot at a time. A hand count of about 4,600 ballots that would help determine who sits in the White House in January was solemn, unprecedented and painstakingly slow.

But outside a raucous circus was in full swing.

"Revote or revolt!" shouted one man with a megaphone who circled a shifting knot of about 100 demonstrators who turned the corner of Olive and 3rd Street, just outside the Palm Beach County government complex, into an impromptu speakers' corner. Partisans of Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush at times debated the intricacies of tax plans and at times hurled insults like daggers.

"Florida--Don't get Bushwhacked," proclaimed one sign.

"Hey, you know what Democrats in Palm Beach need? Eye exams!" said another.

The recount was prompted by confusion of the "butterfly" ballot, used only here in Florida, which many voters complained was so confusing that they ended up voting for the wrong candidate. Paul and Anne Levine said that may have happened to them.

"I wanted to vote for Gore," said Levine, 58. "But when I got home I wasn't sure what I had done."

Added Anne Levine, 55: "Everybody in our area is doubting their votes now. And one of the kids sent me an e-mail which said, 'Flori-duh!' "

Fittingly, the most watched--and perhaps the most critical--recount in U.S. voting history was being carried out in a ground-floor office entirely visible to a swarming mob of news media that viewed the proceedings through large windows that opened onto an interior courtyard in the county's downtown government center.

On live television, the nation, indeed the world, watched as the county's three-member election canvassing committee held up high-tech computer cards to subject them to a decidedly low-tech "sunshine test": If light gleamed through a pinhole, a vote had been cast.

With lawyers representing the local Democratic and Republican parties peering over their shoulders--and occasionally squabbling over what they saw--the committee judged a 1% sample of more than 461,000 ballots cast here Tuesday.

A Solemn Process and a Parade Too

The committee appeared to be carrying out its deliberations with a sober orderliness, almost able to ignore the television lights, the cameras tapping the windows and the sounds of a wild street carnival that blew in through the doors.

As has been said often since Tuesday's election ended without a clear winner, democracy is not always pretty or even efficient. But at least here, it is colorful.

The day began with a parade. Even as hand-picked poll workers arrived to begin their extraordinary duties, bulb-nosed clowns, pixie baton twirlers in turquoise leotards and high school marching bands assembled for the city's annual Veterans Day Parade.

Standing off to the side, casually leaning against a 1955 Chevrolet Bel-Air convertible was the grand marshal, former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr.

"Today is the day of sanity to respond to the insanity of the last week," said Haig, who now lives in the tony seaside enclave of Palm Beach, referring to the day given to honoring veterans.

Republican Haig scoffed at the Democrats' lawsuits and request for a manual recount of the votes in Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade and Volusia counties. "That's looking to substitute somebody else's brain to replace what went on inside the brain of some voters."

For some people, the lure of a hungry international press corps, and scores of television cameras, was too much to resist. Miami activist Bob Kunst, who made a name for--if not a nuisance of--himself back in 1976 opposing Florida orange juice spokeswoman Anita Bryant's denunciations of gays, passed out anti-Bush bumper stickers.

Nearby, a small dog on a leash wore a Gore-Lieberman T-shirt. Two people in Santa Claus suits turned up, and when the cameras turned their way, they produced signs saying, "Happy holidays from West Palm Beach."

Even those present in official positions had colorful pasts. Bruce Rogow and Bob Montgomery, attorneys hired to defend the election board against any legal challenges to the recount, are well known for high-profile clients.

Rogow, a constitutional scholar, successfully defended the Miami rap group 2 Live Crew in a 1990 obscenity trial. Montgomery two years ago led a team that won a judgment for Florida smokers worth $30 billion.

Theresa LePore, the beleaguered supervisor of elections, hired as her spokesman Bob Nichols, a retired television anchorman here for 30 years who drew complaints from some reporters for refusing to reveal his political affiliation.

Observers Arrive for Volusia Recount

In Daytona Beach, 200 miles to the north, where another recount was scheduled to start today, hundreds of people gathered outside the Volusia County administration building to see the arrival of designated "observers"--the Democrats identified with yellow tags hanging around their necks and the Republicans with blue ones.

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