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Democrats' Hopes Tumbled From Chaos on the 19th Floor

DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

November 23, 2000|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — The stunning flip-flop that changed the momentum of the presidential race Wednesday came after a horde of shouting, shoving protesters--many wearing suits and ties--stormed an upper floor of a downtown skyscraper here.

An elections department receptionist fled her desk in panic as angry Republicans pounded on the door. Nearby, a cordon of police guarded the county Democratic Party chairman. With mayhem breaking out all around, the besieged elections chief, David Leahy, switched off the vote counting machines.

Just after 10 a.m. EST, members of the Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board had announced that in order to meet the state Supreme Court's Sunday deadline, they would cease the hand recount of all 654,000 ballots cast. Instead, they decided to concentrate only on the 10,750 undercounts--those computer cards that showed no clear choice for president.

That decision, which jubilant Democrats expected to bring a flood of new votes to Vice President Al Gore, sparked the Republican revolt.

Less than two hours later, the county's three canvassing board members returned under police escort to a conference room where they had spent two exhausting days counting votes. They abruptly announced they were quitting, citing the lack of time to conduct even a more limited canvass of the 10,750 ballots.

"I do not believe we have the ability to conduct a full, accurate recount" in time to meet the Supreme Court's deadline, said Judge Lawrence D. King, head of the canvassing board and the only Democrat on it.

Even in a town notorious for bizarre news events supercharged with political frenzy--witness the Elian Gonzalez affair and evidence of a dead man voting in Miami's 1998 election fraud scandal--the tumult here was extraordinary.

"I don't mind people vigorously pursuing what they're trying to do," said attorney Joe Geller, the local Democratic chairman. "But I was surrounded by screaming maniacs. I was afraid for my safety."

The fracas erupted after Leahy proposed moving the recount operation from the 18th-floor conference room to a computer room one floor above. That way, he explained, the board could examine each ballot and supervise the unfinished computer run that spits out the undercounts.

But the room wasn't large enough for all the political party observers, news media and members of the public who have flocked to the recount here since it began Monday.

Not content to watch through a glass partition, dozens of lawyers and other observers shouted angrily and tried to push their way into the computer room through a narrow hallway.

"A lot of employees were concerned for their safety," said Gisela Salas, assistant supervisor of elections. "We're not set up for crowds like that in the office."

As police raced to the rescue, another disturbance broke out when someone saw Geller, the local Democratic chief, pocket a sample ballot that he'd been given by an elections department employee.

"As I got into the elevator, all these people started jostling me, actually jumping into me, and screaming, 'You're not going anywhere!' "He's a thief!' and telling me to give up the ballot," Geller recalled.

The protesters prevented Geller from leaving the building when he reached the ground floor. More police were called. Television reporters showed up, and glaring lights snapped on.

"I was punched twice, and kicked in the back," said Democratic spokesman Luis Rosero, who was with Geller.

Geller was freed only when police officers escorted him back to the 19th floor, where election officials confirmed that he only had pocketed a "training ballot" intended for Democratic Party use.

Outside the building, a few dozen protesters, mainly elderly Cuban Americans, paraded for obliging TV cameras. They accused Democrats of trying to steal the election as GOP activists passed out T-shirts reading: "Certified. Enough is enough."

Not to miss the fun, a veteran demonstrator showed up with his homemade "Ban Fidel Castro" poster imprinted with the words, "Hay que ser duro con Cuba": One must be tough with Cuba.

'I Feel a Little Guilty'

Back on the 18th floor, the elections board members faced the press. Visibly shaken, and speaking with grim faces and quiet determination, each explained why it now seemed futile to try recounting even the 10,750 votes by hand before Sunday's deadline.

"I feel a little guilty," said Leahy, referring to his earlier attempt to move to smaller quarters upstairs. "I tried to short-circuit without thinking through the logistics, and it simply wasn't going to work."

Leahy, 54, an independent who twice before voted against recounting, said that he felt no public pressure to stop. But he added, "I was concerned that what we were doing was being perceived as not a fair and open process."

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