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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Palm Beach Hand Tally Will Go Forward

Election: County board began the day canceling the vote, then opted to begin recount today. Three more voter suits challenging results are filed.

November 15, 2000|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In a day of hand-wringing and hyperbole, litigation and injunction and the on-again, off-again decision to count more than 450,000 votes by hand, Palm Beach County managed Tuesday to kick up the legal bedlam a notch.

Flip-flopping their decision to hand count the votes, county election officials rushed to beat a 5 p.m. EST deadline for getting vote totals to Tallahassee, the capital. Meanwhile, attorneys for a growing number of voters who want a new election here were scrambling too.

They were shopping for a judge to hear their case, and by 2 p.m., the case had become a laughable hot potato. Five judges had recused themselves or been removed--one, for example, took himself off the case after complaints that he had been overheard disparaging Democrats; another because of a relative's political connections in the capital.

Jorge LeBarga, the Circuit Court judge who finally wound up with the case, learned he had gotten it--or been saddled with it--while he was out to lunch. With three new lawsuits filed Tuesday in Palm Beach County, there now are 10 actions targeted at recount disputes here.

"The loose ends seem to be coming together, but there are more loose ends out there," said Denise Cote, the harried county spokeswoman. "There are appeals and lawsuits all over the place."

Legal wrangling at Palm Beach County's Emergency Operations Center, normally reserved for hurricanes and the like, and the growing pile of lawsuits across town at the courthouse, threatened to prolong the presidential stalemate.

County officials ultimately decided to go ahead with the hand recount of 462,000 votes--a painstaking process that almost didn't happen and may not matter in the end. They will begin, for better or worse, at 7 a.m. EST today.

Palm Beach County, a Democratic stronghold, arguably is the most important piece left in the presidential election puzzle. Whoever wins Palm Beach County could very well win Florida, and whoever wins Florida wins the election.

Among other irregularities, the county is home to the now-infamous "butterfly ballot" that was designed to help senior citizens but has been blamed for confusing hundreds of voters into mistakenly casting ballots for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of for Democratic Vice President Al Gore. The ballot was designed to help elderly voters with poor eyesight, but the large print tumbled the candidates' names onto two pages, creating what some saw as a confusing game of connect the dots.

At the center of the fray remain those notorious "hanging chads"--the tiny pieces of paper that voters are supposed to punch out to mark their ballots, but which often cling like a stubborn hangnail.

The debate about these paper scraps led Palm Beach County's election canvassing board to seek legal opinions from two state agencies--one headed by a Republican, the other by a Democrat.

The results were contradictory.

The first opinion, received on the letterhead of Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican who has campaigned for George W. Bush, suggested the flaws on thousands of ballots were the result of human error, not a flaw in the machines that count votes.

Unless the vote was ruined because of a flaw in the tabulation system, the canvassing board does not have the right to recount the county's votes, wrote Division of Elections Director L. Clayton Roberts. That opinion would favor the GOP candidate, Texas Gov. Bush.

The county canvassing board voted early Tuesday to abandon its recount.

Then, minutes later, the second opinion came by fax from Florida Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth, a Democrat. His opinion said that the failure of a machine to "discern the choices of the voters" can be considered a "mechanical malfunction."

In other words, a chad left clinging to a ballot doesn't reflect a lack of intent on the part of a voter. Instead, it reflects an inability of a vote-counting machine to figure out what a voter intended. And if that's true, Florida law allows the canvassing board to proceed with the recount, Butterworth wrote. That opinion would favor Gore.

There was much debate about whose opinion had more credence--the attorney general, Florida's chief law enforcement officer, or the secretary of state, who runs Florida elections. A Palm Beach County circuit judge sided Tuesday afternoon with Butterworth and the debate is headed to the state Supreme Court.

Butterworth argued that allowing hand counts in some counties but banning them in others could create a "two-tier system" and disqualify all Florida votes.

By day's end, the canvassing board voted 3 to 0 to start the hand count today, and still managed to submit the most up-to-date vote to the state by 5 p.m.

The county submitted 269,732 votes for Gore, 152,951 for Bush--and then began calling weary election workers at home, telling them to start the recount as soon as possible.

Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this story.

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