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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Beholden to Dimples but Deriding Florida's 'Circus'

Irony: A recount in '98 put Republican Rick Green in Texas House. His win came from indented chads--like those GOP is contesting.

November 26, 2000|MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Texas — When 27-year-old Rick Green won a seat as the youngest member of the Texas House of Representatives two years ago, Gov. George W. Bush nicknamed him "Landslide Green."

It was a joke.

Green, a conservative Republican from Dripping Springs, had been a loser on election night--just 20 votes behind the Democratic incumbent. It was only after his family persuaded him to request a recount that the tide turned and Green won by 36 votes.

Green squeaked out the victory thanks to dimpled ballots--the very kind Republicans now blast as unfair and illegitimate in Florida.

While Republicans have angrily charged that election officials are engaging in some sort of soothsaying in Florida, the standards being used to recount votes there often have been more strict than would be permitted in Bush's home state of Texas.

The Lone Star State, in fact, is believed to be the only state where the election code explicitly says an "indentation" on a chad--the paper filling the perforated circle to be punched out on a ballot--can count as a vote.

Dimples Ruled as 'Voter Intent'

While dimpled ballots have been counted in the Florida recount--most prolifically in Broward County--that call is being made by election officials there who have said they believe those ballots show, as Florida law requires, the "voter's intent."

Such subjective reviews of ballots have prompted Republicans to charge that the Florida recount is tainted.

Ironically, in Texas the standards for evaluating voter intent are much clearer than in Florida and even provide for the inclusion of the votes the Republicans have most vehemently objected to in Florida: the dimpled chad.

In a manual count of punch card ballots, Texas law says a vote may be recorded even if the chad is not punched through in four specific instances:

* If two corners of the chad are detached.

* If light is showing through the chad.

* If an indentation is made on the chad by a stylus or other object.

* If "the chad reflects by other means a clearly ascertainable intent of the voter to vote."

It was those standards that propelled Green, a small-business owner who outspent his Democratic opponent, Alec Rhodes, nearly 2 to 1, to his belated victory in House District 46, about 20 miles west of Austin. Green's request for the recount came about a week after the Nov. 3, 1998, election. And it wasn't until Nov. 19 that results of the recount showed Green the victor.

At the time, both men said the manual recount turned up votes for Green on ballots where the voter had attempted to punch a straight party ticket but had failed to punch all the way through.

Green and other Texas Republicans have argued that there is no comparison between what happened in his race for the Texas Legislature and the current battle in Florida for the White House.

Texas, Bush Aide Says, Looks for a Pattern

Democrats have cheerfully noted that Texas will accept dimpled ballots as votes, but Bush's aides said the state's law is being "misinterpreted."

They argue that the phrase "clearly ascertainable intent" makes it far more difficult to include dented chads in Texas elections than the Democrats have indicated.

So when is a dimpled chad a vote in Texas? Bush aides say such dimpled chads should only be counted on ballots where the voter had a pattern--perhaps lacking the strength--of not punching through the appropriate holes.

"If they punched through in all other races and only dimpled the chad in the presidential race, there is no 'clearly ascertainable intent,' " said Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer, and he argued the Texas statute by definition sets a "higher standard" than Florida's, which Fleischer said lacks explicit instructions on how to count votes in a manual recount.

In the Green race, the dimpled chads were counted because election officials believed that the individual voters were trying to vote a straight Republican ticket.

Fleischer said that, while they continue to object to the recount in Florida, Republican observers believe the standards being used in Palm Beach County, where very few of the so-called dimpled ballots are being counted, are better than in Broward County, where Gore has been able to make up ground on ballots that initially were recorded as "no votes" for the presidential race.

"Welcome to the world of the law," Fleischer said.

So what does "Landslide Green"--who said he was shocked at the turn of events in his race--think of all this? The man who may be the only known elected official to make it into office on the say-so of dimpled chads told the San Antonio News-Express last week that he had no confidence in the Florida goings-on.

"No one's going to believe that manual recount is fair or accurate," he said. "The chads are all over the floor. It's a circus, and I think the general public is not going to have any faith in the result."

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