FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — After 10 days of bottomless piles of punch cards, after forests of legal pads and cisterns of Diet Coke, after protests and court hearings and shouts and threats, the Broward County canvassing board finished its historic hand count of 588,000 ballots at 11:51 p.m. Saturday.
As midnight approached, Broward County canvassing board member Suzanne Gunzburger held up to the light ballot No. 6, precinct 43Z, squinted one last time and said with a smile, "A vote for Gore. The last vote is a vote for Gore."
The announcement triggered some subdued applause, but the end to the extraordinary recount was mostly quiet. The overwhelming feeling on the canvassing board and among the lawyers, observers and spin doctors in its orbit was not victory, not defeat, but, to be honest, an enormous sense of relief.
Republican lawyer Shari McCartney, who had monitored the recount for days, pronounced it anticlimactic. "We won, but just like on election night, it's not over."
A little earlier, Robert W. Lee, head of the Broward County board, smiled when he displayed the last ballot and passed it to Gunzburger. When she announced the final tally, he looked relieved and shook hands with his board colleagues.
"We're all exhausted and feel like we deserve a day off," Lee said. "I don't know if it's hit me yet, but when all this calms down, I'm going to sleep for 15 hours straight."
Vice President Al Gore netted 567 votes in Broward County, narrowing Texas Gov. George W. Bush's statewide lead to 464 votes. That makes Broward the biggest source so far of desperately needed votes for Gore in his quest to overturn election night results and win the presidency through controversial hand counts of predominantly Democratic counties.
Democratic lawyer Chris Sautter said: "We are relieved, delighted and not surprised at all by the outcome. We had predicted between 500 and 600 votes, and this number is exactly what we told [Gore campaign chairman] Bill Daley we would get."
After the Broward County board certified its results, it faxed the tallies to the secretary of state's office. A copy of the results will be delivered to the secretary's office in Tallahassee by a county employee.
In Palm Beach County, the hand counting continued late into the night Saturday, ballot by ballot, dimple by dimple. Officials there may have serious trouble meeting the 5 p.m. EST deadline today set by the Florida Supreme Court for hand counts to be tabulated and certified.
As of Saturday night, Palm Beach officials still had more than 4,000 votes to count. It was not quite panic time there--yet--but there was indeed a rising sense of urgency.
"Never say never," Charles Burton, the Palm Beach board's chairman, said Saturday afternoon. "We'll get it done, even if we have to stay all night to do it."
Unlike the Broward County board, which worked 10 days straight without stopping, the three members of the Palm Beach County canvassing board decided to knock off for Thanksgiving. That has left them in the unenviable position of having to hand-inspect 300 paper cards an hour, basically one ballot every 12 seconds, a starter kit for serious repetitive motion strain.
Already, you can almost hear the board members creak as they stand up to take a break.
In the frenzy to meet today's cutoff, tempers flared, nerves frayed and streets were literally split along party lines as the canvassing boards labored amid protests and intense partisan pressure.
In the Broward County recount room, officials snapped at each other over election arcana and rules of procedure.
When one board member asked to clarify yet again how to evaluate disputed ballots, Lee, who is a judge, testily said, "We're not going to talk about standards anymore. . . . That's it. Enough."
At that moment, a Republican lawyer accused Lee of siding with Democrats. "You're just trolling for more votes, judge," said William Scherer.
"You're out of line, Mr. Scherer, and we're going to take a recess," Lee replied. "And when we return, you're not allowed back."
Tension had been building between Lee and Scherer for days. Lee had threatened to eject Scherer from the room on Thursday but let him stay. When the board reconvened Saturday after its recess, Scherer stayed outside.
"These Republican guys are starting to freak out," said Democratic lawyer Chris Sautter. "They see us picking up a lot of votes, and they just can't stand to watch."
Scherer declined to comment.
The tension was building outside too. In the throes of a thunderstorm, 4- and 5-year-olds stood with their parents in slanting rain yelling, "Gore is a lose-er! Gore is a lose-er!"
They were among a crowd of 300 Bush supporters who gathered in the street in front of the courthouse where the Broward County canvassing board has been meeting.