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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Miami-Dade Hand Count to Go On, but Tally May Take Up to 30 Days

Election: The canvassing board reverses its earlier decision after a county judge changes her vote. She says that 'events are exploding upon us.'

November 18, 2000|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — In a decision that could mean the final Florida presidential vote will not be known for up to 30 days, the Miami-Dade County canvassing board agreed Friday to recount by hand all 653,963 ballots cast in the Nov. 7 election.

The 2-1 decision reverses a Tuesday vote to deny the recount. The state Democratic Party had sought the full hand tally, believing it would turn up more votes for Vice President Al Gore.

Similar manual recounts are underway in Palm Beach and Broward counties, which also are Democratic strongholds.

Gisela Salas, Miami-Dade's assistant supervisor of elections, estimated that the recount would take 26 to 30 days.

"This is turning into the O.J. Simpson trial of elections," said attorney Roberto Martinez, who had presented the Republican argument for denying a full recount.

The pivotal vote in the decision to manually recount all ballots cast in the most populous of Florida's 67 counties came from county Judge Myriam Lehr. On Tuesday, she had agreed with nonpartisan election supervisor David Leahy that a recount of about 5,800 ballots in three precincts had not produced evidence that a full retabulation would alter the spread between Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Gore won Miami-Dade County with 53% of the vote.

But after hearing two hours of arguments from attorneys for both the Democrats and Republicans, Lehr sided with Judge Lawrence D. King, a Democrat.

Lehr, 43, a nonpartisan civil court judge who was born in Belgium, offered no explanation for her change of heart.

But early in the public hearing Friday, she did comment that she had not been pressured to favor one side over the other. "Nobody has pushed me," she said, interrupting Martinez when he used the word "push" to describe the lawyers' entreaties to the board. "I have heard the positions [of both sides]. I don't consider that pushing. But I will tell you, Mr. Coffey [Kendall Coffey, the Democrats' attorney] has made a point, and I agree with him. Events are exploding upon us."

Moments later, while Martinez was still making his case, he was interrupted by Democratic lawyer Stephen Zack--who, in what he called a "Della Street moment," informed the hearing that Florida's Supreme Court had barred the secretary of state from certifying the election, as she had planned to do today.

The news sent a buzz through the 150 spectators in the hearing room and caused an outbreak of smiles on the faces of the dozen or so lawyers at the Democrats' table.

The Democrats on Thursday had won a rehearing of their recount request, citing a host of legal developments, including the ruling that allowed recounts to proceed in neighboring Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Coffey seemed to surprise the board when he argued that if a full recount were not granted, the Democrats would be content with a recount of 10,750 ballots on which no vote for president was recorded. Those ballots are called undercounts.

"It's a compromise position," said Coffey, who then agreed with King when the judge said those totals could favor Bush. "We could be wrong," said Coffey, "and if someone other than the one we support for president of the U.S. wins, we will support that, we will stand behind him."

GOP attorney Miguel de Grandy argued that the Democrats had offered no new evidence to warrant a change of the board's vote. "I beg you not to bring the three-ring circus occurring in Palm Beach and Broward counties to the county I love."

Added Martinez: "No new law, no new facts, just more lawyer talk."

The canvassing board set a 9 a.m. meeting today to discuss the logistics of the recount.

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