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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Broward Recounts and Palm Beach Gets to Include 'Dimples'

Election: Two counties start in again on hand tabulations, even though their fate remains in doubt amid a welter of rulings and declarations.

November 16, 2000|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN and SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Broward County officials reversed course--again--and Wednesday ordered a hand recount of the entire county, a move that Democratic Party operatives say could give Al Gore as many as 600 desperately needed votes.

And 40 miles up Florida's east coast, a Palm Beach County judge tendered the Gore campaign a second victory by allowing ballots with "dimples"--those that are not perforated, but clearly indented--to be counted as votes.

Palm Beach, whose tortuous, schizophrenic presidential election process has seized center stage, is also a heavily Democratic county, and the lower the bar for what counts as a vote, the higher the number of additional votes Gore could harvest from a hand-by-hand re-tally.

Gore officials, careful not to seem too celebratory, said these actions should be seen only as victories for the people.

The ultimate fate of the votes tallied through the recounts was uncertain. Late Wednesday night, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris said she would not accept votes counted after Tuesday, citing a deadline imposed by state law.

Republican lawyers vowed to continue pressing their claims in court, saying that both the hand count and the ballot ruling were illegal. On Wednesday afternoon, the federal 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta agreed to hear arguments on George W. Bush's lawsuit that selective hand counts are unconstitutional.

So far, though, judges have been reluctant to interfere with decisions of local election boards. On Wednesday, in the most significant ruling yet, the Florida Supreme Court found there were no grounds to strike down hand counts.

That news sent a jolt of electricity through the network of Gore operatives who have flooded into Broward and Palm Beach counties this last week to live off a diet of fast food, Mountain Dew and CNN and help observe this straight-into-the-history-books election recount.

"This is great!" said Cynthia Leesfield, a jumpy bundle of optimism as she rode up an elevator to take her place as a Democratic observer of the Broward hand count. "The votes we will get in Broward could swing the election."

Coincidentally, the two key local decisions Wednesday were made at about the same time, about 11:30 a.m.

In West Palm Beach, Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga began the ballot hearing by defending his ties to the Republican Party. Labarga has somewhat of a confused political identity. He was appointed to the bench by Florida's previous Democratic governor, yet he used to be active in the local Republican Party and was formerly president of the Cuban American Republican Club. He took the ballot case after six county judges recused themselves.

Labarga's ruling was focused on "chads," the confetti-like pieces of paper voters are supposed to punch out when they mark their ballots. Republicans argued that no chad short of being nearly detached should count as a vote. Democrats argued that an indented or dimpled chad should be tallied.

Labarga ruled that dimpled chads should be considered, but it's up to local officials to make the call.

That decision, along with the state Supreme Court ruling not to get involved, set Palm Beach County election officials finally into motion. The election board had voted in recent days to begin the recount, then to cancel it, then to start it again, then to postpone it.

Finally, recounting resumed Wednesday and officials say it will take five days to inspect 462,000 ballots.

Hand counts typically add votes and, in heavily Democratic counties such as Palm Beach and Broward, that's tantamount to more Gore votes. (That, in fact, is why the Democrats targeted those counties.)

In Broward, the decision to go forward with the manual recount fell into the hands of County Judge Robert W. Lee, who also chairs the county's three-member election board.

Appointed to the bench by Florida's previous Democratic governor and active in liberal causes, Lee stunned people Monday when he sided with the Republicans and voted down a hand recount of the county's 588,000 ballots.

But on Tuesday, the 40-year-old judge scaled back his position, saying he wanted to reconsider. And on Wednesday, with all the ingredients of a fast-moving soap opera, he changed his mind and cast the deciding vote again, this time for a recount. He acknowledged the pressure from both sides but said the legal opinion of Florida's Democratic Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth, written Tuesday, was "more valid" than the advisory memo issued by Harris on Monday.

"I always do what I feel is the legal thing to do, and whether you annoy people . . . well, that's just too bad," Lee said.

And so began the biggest hand recount in Florida so far, one that could take four days. It is thought to be one of the most extensive hand recounts performed in this country since ballot machines were introduced.

At Broward County's hurricane shelter outside Fort Lauderdale, men wearing overalls and appropriately solemn expressions rolled several blue steel boxes out of a truck and up a ramp. Sheriff's deputies followed. Camera flashes blinked. Those boxes held the ballots.

Security was so tight, and mistrust so deep, that two observers--one Democratic, one Republican--spent the night on cots outside the room where the ballots were kept.

Broward voted for Gore by nearly 3 to 1 and turned up an extra vote per precinct in a sample hand count. Democratic observers said they expected as many as 600 additional votes, one for each of 609 precincts, and enough to reverse the statewide results, which Bush now leads by 300 votes.

And though the hand count was indeed the talk of the town, not everyone cared.

Across the street from the crowded hurricane center, Troy Johnson was just waiting for his bus to come. And an end to all this.

"I just wish they'd hurry," he said.

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