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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

One Dimple, Two Interpretations

Recount: In one Florida county, Gore is gaining votes. In another, he's not. The reason? Different standards on considering ballot indentations.

November 25, 2000|JEFFREY GETTLEMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The two boards recounting votes by hand in Florida both toss around phrases like "discernible impressions" and "voters' intent" and "the totality of the vote."

But in many ways, the boards are not speaking the same language, especially when it comes to dimples.

Unable to determine a voter's intent, Palm Beach County officials tossed out hundreds of ballots marked with a pinprick, bump or indentation Friday despite a judge's order to use less strict standards when reviewing disputed ballots.

But it was a whole other story 50 miles south in Broward County. Canvassing officials there considered similarly "dimpled" ballots as valid--and many went straight into Al Gore's column.

Therein lies an explanation for a major mystery in the postelection presidential race: why Vice President Gore is gaining desperately needed votes in Broward County but failing to win votes in Palm Beach County.

The latest reports show the Democrat winning about one in four dimpled ballots in Broward. Palm Beach County officials were not releasing figures Friday night, but the most current reports had Gore's Republican opponent, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, up eight votes.

The different interpretations of voter intent also explain why the street protests have shifted from West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale, where the Broward board meets. Republican activists view the Broward board as far too generous to Gore in the neck-and-neck postelection race.

The two canvassing boards are poles apart in a few telling ways, including mood, style and personality. Charles Burton, head of the Palm Beach canvassing board, is apt to sprinkle a few wisecracks into the kindling-dry work of staring at paper cards 16 hours a day.

"Hey, any more from where those came from?" he kidded a sheriff's deputy who marched into the room with a steel case of disputed ballots. "Anybody else want to count these? Anybody?"

In contrast, Broward chairman Robert W. Lee has become increasingly intense and confrontational, nearly ejecting a Republican observer from a meeting on Thanksgiving Day. Unlike Palm Beach, where the three board members sit next to partisan lawyers, a heavy wood table shields the Broward canvassing board from the bank of partisan observers. In Palm Beach, the board lets the observers ask questions. In Broward, they're told to keep quiet.

Both of the recount rooms are tightly controlled, quiet and sterile. But the Palm Beach canvassing room has an oddly futuristic, Buck Rogers feel to it, with yellow pipes snaking along the ceiling, chairs arranged in semicircular rows and walls made of steel screen.

If there's one key difference between the boards, however, it's how they judge questionable ballots. And the Palm Beach County board has shown, as the long counting days have worn on, that it is much stricter.

There are no clear guidelines on how to judge a dimpled ballot--ballots indented but not punched through--and both three-member boards have resisted stating precisely what type of marks or dents constitute a vote. Instead, they have been scrutinizing ballots on a case-by-case basis.

By Friday night, Broward had finished inspecting most of the county's 1,800 dimpled ballots. It's not clear how many similar ballots are stacked up in Palm Beach County. Officials there said they had a pile of 6,000 challenged votes to rule on, but many of those were routed to the canvassing board for reasons other than dimples.

On Wednesday, a judge reiterated to the Palm Beach board that it needed to at least consider ballots on which marks may indicate the voter's intent.

The Broward board tends to do more extrapolating than Palm Beach, to the frustration of Republican observers. But the Broward board seems divided within itself about how to do this.

A Democrat on the board, Suzanne Gunzburger, often decides by peering at other races down the ballot and then judging whether a dimple pressed into the Gore or Bush spot was indeed an intended vote. Nearly every dimple in Gore's column was a vote to her.

The Republican judge two seats over, Robert Rosenberg, needs to see a chad torn or perforated before considering it a vote. A chad is the tiny piece of paper that is usually punched out when a vote is cast.

Lee, the chairman of the Broward board, also a judge and a registered Democrat, often acts as the tiebreaker on the panel.

In Palm Beach, if a ballot is all dimpled--which sometimes happens--the board has been inclined to record the votes in the presidential race. But if a ballot is a mixture of dimples and clearly marked votes in other races, the board has been reluctant to award a vote to either Gore or Bush.

"I'm not comfortable saying I know that a dimple was a voter's intent when that voter had no problem making a clear vote in other instances," Burton said.

These differences have hardly gone overlooked.

"The people here are not allowing as many votes to go through as they should," said Ben Kuehne, the lead attorney for the Democratic effort in Palm Beach. "The Broward board understands the law much better.'

Of course, Republicans feel the polar opposite. "In Broward, they're counting everything," GOP attorney Burt Odelson said. "Here [in Palm Beach County], they're being much more fair."

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