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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Those Who Hold Vote's Fate in Their Hands Face New Pressure

November 22, 2000|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN and MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — They have worked 12 hours a day, fueled by endless meals of chicken and stale danish. They have forsaken weekends and families, gotten little sleep and, often, no pay. And they've been mocked and maligned.

Now comes the hard part.

The Florida Supreme Court ruling to extend the deadline until 5 p.m. Sunday for filing official presidential vote tallies--or 9 a.m. Monday if the secretary of state's offices are closed for the holiday weekend--means all three of the high-pressure counting-room caldrons must race against the clock to complete their work. And that means intense new pressure for the unheralded Florida residents entrusted with sifting through this surreal election mess, ballot by ballot, precinct by precinct.

The task will be toughest in Miami-Dade County, the state's most populous county and Vice President Al Gore's best hope for overtaking George W. Bush's uncertified 930-vote statewide lead.

Officials in the sprawling Democratic stronghold only began the manual recount of 654,000 ballots Monday and had not planned to finish until Dec. 1. As a result, they have only tabulated votes from 135 of the county's 614 precincts so far.

A lawyer for the campaign of Democratic candidate Gore insisted Tuesday night that Miami-Dade would meet the new deadline, though he didn't explain how. The county canvassing board was still meeting late Tuesday.

"This community is equal to the task," said Gore campaign attorney Kendall Coffey, the former U.S. attorney in Miami. "We are going to get these votes counted, and the job will be done. We're confident it can get done."

Coffey warned, however, that he expects "a new round of Republican strategy to slow it down." He did not elaborate.

Broward Board Expects to Work on Holiday

In Broward County, the canvassing board said it probably would work on Thanksgiving and Sunday to finish in time. Democrats in the recount center greeted the ruling with cheers, shouts of "Yes! Yes!" and relieved smiles.

"All this work wasn't for nothing," said Charles Lichtman, an attorney for the county Democratic Party.

In Palm Beach County, canvassing board head Charles Burton grabbed a microphone moments after the ruling and urged 80 counters and observers to "keep on counting!"

Burton said he believes the county can beat the new deadline, though they too may be forced to work on Thanksgiving and Sunday.

Palm Beach counters have plowed through 360,543 of the county's 462,000 votes, or 78%. Thousands of absentee and disputed ballots remain piled in front of the canvassing board, which must consider each of them before the results can be certified.

"It's nice to have the highest court in the state, in a unanimous decision, tell you that you are doing the right thing," Burton said. "This is one of the finest examples of democracy in action."

It also appeared to be just another bizarre night for the battle-scarred veterans in the Florida recount wars. In recent days, Republicans and other critics have waged a barbed campaign to ridicule the recounting underway--and everybody involved in it.

The 1,000-plus counters in the three counties are a cross-section of America, from librarians to firefighters, from accountants to camp counselors, from secretaries to dump truck drivers. And the counting rooms are quiet, orderly places where they battle long hours and mind-numbing tedium.

This week, however, Republicans accused ballot handlers of everything from outright chicanery to the ultimate insult: eating chads, the tiny pieces of paper that voters are supposed to poke out of a ballot.

"That's wrong," Brad Eddy, a Broward counter, said earlier Tuesday. "We've never done this before. Nobody has. We're just trying to be honest and fair. And this is what we get."

No group has been more snickered at than the older counters, who have been accused of being too feeble to pick up a paper card, hold it to the light and stick it in a pile.

To some retirees, it's part of an unpleasant, familiar pattern emerging in this anxious postelection period.

First, they were baffled by the "butterfly ballot" in Palm Beach. Then they were accused of being too weak to poke a pin through paper and needed lawyers and judges to help decipher their pinpricked or dimpled ballots. Now, some election observers say, they can't count.

"This one lady, well, she was in her 80s and moving pretty slow and her hands didn't seem to be working," said Gil Linkswiler, a Republican observer. "Nothing against her, but she shouldn't have been counting."

The Republicans say they have good reason to be concerned about this unprecedented process. They are collecting chads and other evidence in an attempt to show that the hand recounts are so fraught with mistakes that they should not be used to overturn Republican candidate Bush's slim lead over Gore.

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