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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Democrats Pin Hopes on 'Voter Intent' Ruling

Strategy: Gore camp asks court to hold all counties to the more liberal standard, which they say is mandated by law.

November 20, 2000|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Democrats are increasingly concerned that the manual recounts now underway in three South Florida counties will not produce enough new votes to give Al Gore the lead unless the state Supreme Court orders the counties to use a broader standard in judging which ballots should be added to the existing totals, sources say.

With the manual recounts so far not producing as many votes as Gore's campaign expected, key Democrats say the final result will be a "crapshoot" unless the Florida Supreme Court compels local officials to use a common standard in assessing which ballots were meant to be cast for either Vice President Gore, the Democratic nominee, or Texas Gov. George W. Bush, his Republican rival.

This concern has pushed Democrats to open a new front in the legal dispute between the two sides. While asking the state Supreme Court to order the inclusion of the manually recounted ballots in the final state tally, Democrats on Sunday also requested the court to require that all counties employ the more permissive "voter intent" standard that Gore lawyers insist is mandated in Florida law.

Imposing that standard may now be as critical to Gore's hopes of winning the presidency as the underlying question of whether the results of the manual recounts are included in the final tallies, key Democrats say.

"They are both very significant decisions," said one senior Democratic strategist in the state. "I will not say we cannot make it [past Bush] under the current standard, but it's very close to a crapshoot."

Bush aides denounce the Democrats' attempts to apply the voter intent standard as an effort to change the rules in the middle of the game--because the existing process does not appear to be producing the result they want. "It sounds like Al Gore and his attorneys are trying to come up with ways to continue counting until they get the result they want," Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said.

On Sunday, officials in Broward County gave Gore a big victory by voting unanimously to adopt the more liberal voter intent standard for judging which ballots to add to each man's total.

The voter intent standard would allow the counting of ballots where "chads" are only indented or loosely perforated, as opposed to only those where at least two corners of the chad were dislodged, the standard Broward County has so far used.

But Democrats are increasingly concerned that Palm Beach County officials are in practice employing the more restrictive two-corner standard, despite a court ruling last week urging them to also use the voter intent measure. And that, officials say, is raising anxiety that the recount may not produce enough votes for Gore to overcome Bush's official 930-vote lead.

The opening of this new legal battle over the standards for manually counting ballots crystallizes the dynamic that is extending and proliferating the conflict here. Because the two sides are separated by so few votes, each is being driven to file new litigation meant to add or subtract even small numbers of votes that could spell victory for their man.

As a result, one ranking Democratic attorney predicted, even after the state Supreme Court rules on the paramount issue of whether the results of the manual recounts may be included in the official results, "there is still plenty of litigation left in this process."

Already, Republican lawyers are examining legal or administrative challenges to county canvassing board decisions that invalidated hundreds of overseas absentee ballots on technical grounds; that could help Bush maintain a lead even if the state Supreme Court allows the manually recounted ballots to be included in the official final result.

"We are sure looking closely at it, as a matter of principle if not politics," one senior Bush legal advisor said.

Perhaps paving a path for such a challenge, U.S. Rep. Stephen E. Buyer (R-Ind.), chairman of the military personnel subcommittee, said Sunday that he would launch an inquiry into how Florida counties handled the overseas absentee ballots, especially ballots submitted by members of the military.

Conversely, a Democratic activist has filed suit seeking to invalidate thousands of absentee ballots in Seminole County, where a local election official helped Republican operatives correct errors in ballot application forms; that could potentially cost Bush 4,800 votes and allow Gore to take the lead even if the results of the manually recounted ballots are not included in the final total.

In its intense struggle over every vote, the battle in Florida is fast becoming a microcosm of the election itself. In October, Bush and Gore were forced to battle over groups of voters ordinarily too small to contest--such as Oregon supporters of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader--because the extraordinary tightness of the race meant that even tiny shifts in voter sentiment could tip the balance in the unusually large number of close states.

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