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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Ballot Recount: Many Things to Many People

Canvassing: Vague guidelines spur varied processes. At least 16 Florida counties failed to retabulate every vote.

November 15, 2000|LISA GETTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — When the call came from Tallahassee for every county in Florida to recount presidential ballots the day after last week's historic vote, Baker County elections supervisor John Barton and his local canvassing board took the easy way out.

They simply checked the electronic memory of their computers, running the numbers again to see if they matched the results from the day before. Not a single ballot was re-scanned or inspected.

Nor did it have to be.

In Florida, it turns out, a recount doesn't mean the same thing to everyone.

The state election guidelines covering the first-round statewide recount are so vaguely written that counties varied widely in the processes they used to recount ballots. A Times examination of last week's recount revealed that at least 16 of Florida's 67 counties failed to recount every ballot cast in the election. Some counties simply checked their computer vote tallies. Others just electronically re-scanned their absentee ballots. Some examined ballots in only a portion of their precincts.

"There are a lot of gray areas," said DeSoto County elections supervisor Ronald Turner, where every ballot was run through the tabulating machines again. "It doesn't really say in the statutes just how you can do it."

Florida law dictates that each canvassing board "examine the counters on the machines or the tabulation of the ballots cast" and "determine whether the returns correctly reflect the votes cast." It is silent as to whether individual ballots need to be examined.

State election officials and the Florida secretary of state did not return calls Tuesday seeking comment.

Baker's Remarks Put in Question

The differing methods sanctioned by Florida officials appeared to undercut arguments by James A. Baker III, a lawyer for Texas Gov. George W. Bush's campaign, that last week's computer recount was more efficient and standardized than the manual recounts sought by lawyers for Democrat Vice President Al Gore.

Consider what happened in Calhoun and Citrus counties, both small counties that use ballots similar to lottery ticket forms. Voters color in circles and the ballots are then run through a tabulator, which spits out any ballot that has no vote or more than one vote.

When Calhoun, which is about 50 miles from Tallahassee, conducted its recount, the canvassing board merely reran the computer tapes for each tabulator. "We ran our tapes on our precinct counters. That was about all we could do," said county elections supervisor Martin Sewall. The recount found no mistakes.

But in Citrus County on Florida's west coast, elections operation manager Maureen Baird found a way to reprogram the computers and scan every ballot again. The result after 14 1/2 hours: two more votes for Gore. "That is how a true recount should be done, by counting every single ballot," Baird said. "Trust me. What I'm saying is true."

Most of the 16 counties that failed to actually recount ballots are in sparsely populated parts of North Florida, but they also include the metropolitan areas of Orlando and Jacksonville. Eleven of the 16 counties went for Bush.

Florida's election officials blame the different definitions of recounts here on the variety of voting systems used by the counties. Most of the counties that chose to only check their computer memories use a newer, more sophisticated kind of balloting--similar to the forms used by students when they take their standardized college entrance exams--than the punch cards used in Palm Beach County.

Bay County in Florida's Panhandle uses the more advanced system. Elections supervisor Melanie Boyd said that if her system had been used in Palm Beach County, the folks who voted for two candidates would have learned of their mistake at the polls.

"With our system, the voter gets the opportunity to correct a mistake if they choose to," she said. In fact, she noted, 86% of the people who accidentally voted for two candidates threw out their ballots at the polls and voted again. Bay's canvassing board checked its computer memory to satisfy the recount.

So did nearby Walton County. "We did not do a manual recount. We pulled the memory card and ran the tapes again," said elections supervisor Melissa Beasley, who said she would feed the ballots back into the machines only with a court order. "We're thoroughly convinced that our equipment is some of the best."

Use of Memory Tapes Is Defended

Okaloosa County elections supervisor Patricia Hollarn defended using the memory tapes to do a recount. "There were no irregularities reported to me at any time during the election or since," she said, adding that Bush so overwhelmingly carried the Panhandle county that a recount really shouldn't have been necessary.

Polk County in central Florida initially just checked its computer tapes. But when the numbers didn't add up, the canvassing board decided to run the ballots through the machines again, face side up.

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