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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS | COLUMN ONE

Long Night, Agonizing Decision in Palm Beach

Three election board members hand count ballots amid frayed nerves, objecting observers and arguments over chads. Results lead to a choice that could help break stalemate over the next president.

November 13, 2000|BOB DROGIN and MEG JAMES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — They huddled all afternoon, through the night and into the wee hours Sunday at long conference tables, squinting at partially punched paper ballots and squabbling over murky election rules and the fate of the nation.

One ballot puzzled them all: The top layer of a "chad"--the confetti-sized square of paper that a voter is supposed to poke out to mark a choice--was removed, but an ultra-thin layer of paper remained.

"How did they do this?" wondered Theresa LePore, the Palm Beach County elections supervisor who designed the now-infamous butterfly ballot that helped throw America's presidential election into disarray. "I've never seen anything like it."

Neither has the rest of an utterly confused nation.

But one of the strangest elections in U.S. political history may come down to this: as goes Palm Beach County, so could go the White House.

Volusia County began its own hand count Sunday and Broward County is set to start today. Dade-Miami County will decide Tuesday whether to hand count theirs. If Palm Beach County is any guide, even more confusion lies ahead.

Sharing frayed nerves, gallows humor and a clear sense that history was watching, the three members of the Palm Beach County canvassing board and a gaggle of Republican and Democratic party lawyers finally completed their agonizing hand count of 4,695 ballots at 11:15 p.m. EST Saturday.

"Shall we break out the champagne?" asked board member Carol Roberts. But it was far too soon to party.

They argued and gulped coffee for another three hours, and didn't emerge, blinking and exhausted into glaring TV spotlights, until 2 a.m.--more than 12 hours after they had begun. Then they engaged in an acrimonious public debate over whether to hand count all 462,657 ballots cast in the county. The task would be monumental.

In the end, the deciding vote fell to LePore, who was so weak from the ordeal that her lawyer had to help hold her up. "Yes," she whispered.

Palm Beach ballots are being examined by three county officials who repeatedly changed the rules as they conducted the first hand count of Florida's cliffhanger election.

The sprawling Atlantic coastal county is one of the largest east of the Mississippi. Famed for the old-money mansions and carrier-sized yachts on swanky Palm Beach island, it also is home to grinding poverty in Haitian and other immigrant communities.

The three county canvassing board members at the center of the storm are stoutly middle-class, fairly representing the vast majority of the county's 1 million residents. But Republicans launched a blistering attack on their integrity, saying the three are not impartial because all are registered Democrats.

LePore, 45, has worked at the elections office since she was 16. The soft-spoken daughter of a former West Palm Beach commissioner, she rose through the ranks to become chief deputy elections supervisor in 1978 and was elected supervisor in 1996. Highly popular here, she was reelected Tuesday without opposition.

Roberts, 64, a former mayor of West Palm Beach and a successful businesswoman, has a feisty, take-no-prisoners style. She was first elected to the county commission in 1986 and was commission chairman several times. In 1988, she served on the canvassing board that spent 21 hours manually recounting disputed ballots that ultimately gave Republican Connie Mack a U.S. Senate seat over Buddy MacKay. She knows how fickle elections can be: In 1978, she lost a City Council race by one vote.

The board chairman is Florida state Judge Charles Burton, 41, a genial man with thick dark hair and a fondness for furtive smokes. Although a Democrat, he was appointed to the county Criminal Court in May by Gov. Jeb Bush, the younger brother of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. Burton previously had a successful private practice and did two stints as a deputy state prosecutor.

At 1:45 p.m. Saturday, the three gather in a large L-shaped room off the lobby of the massive white Palm Beach County government center. The goal: to examine and tabulate ballots from four precincts. Because Democrats requested the hand count, arguing that polling machines failed to count many votes for Democrat Al Gore, they got to choose sample precincts to represent 1% of the total county vote.

Gore was the leader in Palm Beach County's results on election night, while Bush was narrowly ahead in the unofficial vote statewide in Florida.

The judge immediately laid down the law, according to pool reports filed by journalists who were granted 30-minute visits into the room one at a time. Lawyers representing the political parties can take notes but may not touch a ballot or talk to counters. No cell phones or pagers. Raise hands for any questions. No touching the tables. "We've got the hand slappers here," Burton warns, noting sheriff's deputies clustered round.

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