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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

A Tempest to the End for Battered Palm Beach

November 27, 2000|HECTOR TOBAR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — With the clock ticking toward a 5 p.m. deadline, the slow but orderly ballot count of the Palm Beach County canvassing board suddenly became, in its final hour, a mad dash to the finish.

With the presidency of the United States hanging in the balance, county firefighters and public works employees were pressed into service. The fate of the election was in the hands of men with "Fire Rescue" patches emblazoned on their shoulders. Attorneys scrambled about, trying to observe a rule against loud talking by signaling to each other with snapping fingers.

"Let's not argue," Commissioner Carol Roberts said testily as lawyers maneuvered around her. "I want to get this done."

It was a fitting end to an often chaotic week of hand recounts of ballots in three South Florida counties, a week that had seen "mobs" beating doors and the serenity of courtrooms shattered by the raised voices of outraged party lawyers.

After more than 100 million votes cast in 50 states, from small prairie towns to big-city precincts, the election to pick the first president of the new millennium had come down to this: the final 1,000 or so votes, lined up neatly inside a pair of gray metal boxes in the emergency operations center here, waiting to be tallied.

In the final analysis, they were not counted. Or rather, they were not counted in a time and fashion that satisfied Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. The board asked Harris for extra time to count the ballots, but she replied that she could not alter the 5 p.m. EST deadline imposed by the Florida Supreme Court.

The three members of the canvassing board could tell time was slipping away, and 90 minutes before the deadline, they huddled privately with Republican and Democratic attorneys in a corner of the counting room. This prompted Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) and several reporters to shout, "That's illegal! This is a public meeting!"

The corner meeting broke up after a few moments without explanation. But later, it became clear that the board had decided that it would be impossible to count all the ballots and that it would have to submit partial returns.

About an hour later, at 4:26 p.m., the counting stopped so that the paperwork could be prepared and faxed to Tallahassee.

"The secretary of state has apparently decided to shut us down," county Judge Charles Burton told reporters.

Thus ended a day that was centered, appropriately, in a concrete bunker built by Palm Beach County to withstand hurricanes. This time, the swirling currents were political, although they came with a gale force all their own.

There were lawyers everywhere--many, many lawyers--huddling in small groups, deigning interviews, discussing strategy, making secret tallies of the vote that they shared with friendly reporters.

"We've got Gore up by 180," one of the attorneys said just outside the counting room. At just that moment, two rooms away, two members of the canvassing board were standing over a fax machine sending an incomplete tally to Tallahassee.

Politicians milled about everywhere, at least a score of them, ranging from state legislators to U.S. senators. Like moths drawn to a light, they gravitated toward the clusters of media microphones assembled outside. A few even took their own turns at the counting table, squinting at pregnant chads.

"Time after time, when there were dimpled chads, they [the board] were rejecting them," said Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), one of the elected officials who spent time at the counting table. "There are hundreds of votes not being counted."

In the final hour, the serene, gray figure of Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) could be seen in the counting room too, sitting two rows up in the amphitheater-like setting.

Outside, New York Gov. George Pataki crossed paths with his occasional nemesis, the firebrand Rev. Al Sharpton.

"Keep the Sabbath holy and count all the votes," Sharpton called out to the governor, who responded with a perfunctory wave back.

Nearby, about 400 protesters amassed, an overwhelmingly GOP crowd that included many families with small children.

The demonstrations here Sunday provided further evidence of one of the more surprising developments here in the 19 days following the election: the Republicans' victory in the battle for the streets.

Lobbyists have been the shock troops of the GOP activist army here, people such as Andy Anderson, director of an Oregon farm lobbying group. At first, the party summoned him to South Florida to be a Republican monitor of the recount in Broward County. When his work was done there, he spent the better part of a week drifting from one South Florida demonstration to the next.

"It's kind of an anxious time," Anderson said outside the Palm Beach County operation center, under a blistering sun, his complexion turning even pinker than it was already. "While you were here, you felt you were having an impact, making a difference. Now it's up to the lawyers."

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