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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

In Locked Room May Lie Gore's Key

Miami-Dade County: File drawers full of ballots, 10,750 of them uncounted, are sought by Democrats. Election officials are standing by for court orders.

November 28, 2000|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — The 10,750 uncounted ballots are stored in long blue file drawers, in locked file cabinets, in a secure tabulation room on the government center's 19th floor. Two armed police officers sit by the door.

After any normal election in Miami-Dade County, those computer punch cards would already have been trucked to a warehouse, where after a year in dark oblivion, they would be destroyed.

But this has been no normal election.

For Democrat Al Gore, the best hope of election victory could lie right here, in a silent room filled with card-reading machines, metal boxes called transfer cases and some 654,000 punch cards. Some of those cards bear obvious holes, some have hanging chads, and some may be marked by telltale indentations.

Democrats Ask for Ballots' Safekeeping

In a suit filed Monday in Tallahassee, Fla., attorneys for the vice president asked a Leon County judge to order Miami-Dade County election officials to "immediately transmit the approximately 10,750 uncounted ballots cast in the year 2000 presidential election to the clerk of courts for safe keeping." In an emergency motion also filed Monday, attorneys for the Democrats asked that the ballots be delivered by 11 a.m. EST today to Tallahassee, where they want a court-appointed special master to help recount the ballots.

An examination of the so-called under-votes--those cards that didn't register a vote for president when run through vote-counting machines--would give Gore a win in Florida, and the presidency, the Democrats' suit asserts.

"It's awesome to think that the nation's fate could lie in a room such as this," Assistant Election Supervisor Gisela Salas mused Monday as she peered through a glass partition into the tabulation room. "It's incredible. Who would have thought that on election night we'd still be talking about the election results three weeks later?"

In many ways, the workday was routine on the 19th floor Monday. Some staff members were busy preparing for a vote today in Miami Lakes, where residents will decide on incorporation. Others attended walk-ups to the public service windows, where citizens can register to vote or pick up absentee ballots.

In the waiting area by the elevator, county Democratic Party leader Joe Geller was using a sample ballot and a voting machine to demonstrate for a visitor how the antiquated system could give rise to an inaccurate count. "There are hundreds and hundreds of votes in there in our favor--uncounted," he said.

Most of the reporters were gone, and so too were the dozens of angry Republicans who had stormed into the office last week chanting "Election fraud!" when the canvassing board--saying they could save time by looking at the under-votes while monitoring the machine-sorting of ballots--moved the recount from a large conference room on the floor below.

The same demonstrators also turned on Geller, who was in the area with a sample ballot on that day too. After someone from the crowd accused Geller of stealing a vote, demonstrators chased after him to the ground floor, where he found police protection.

That rowdy commotion, Democrats allege in their lawsuit, was "a campaign of personal attacks upon canvassing board members and election personnel" that influenced the county's decision to call off its recount. Addressing the nation Monday night, Gore called it "organized intimidation."

Stopping the recount, say Democrats, blocked Gore from victory. Over two days of manual recounting, the suit says, Gore picked up about 160 votes from a recount of 20% of some 654,000 votes cast countywide.

Those 160 votes were not included in Miami-Dade County's final tally.

Election Officials Keep Calendar Clear

Salas said that she and her boss, Election Supervisor David Leahy, a member of the three-person canvassing board, briefly discussed the logistics of shipping the uncounted ballots to Tallahassee if the court issues such an order.

"We have never had to do that, so I don't know how it would be done," she said. "Maybe with state police or federal marshals. Not just with UPS or FedEx. Can you imagine if they got lost?"

Salas said that while waiting for the court to decide, the election department has turned away public service jobs it might normally take on--using the department's 12 card-reading machines to tabulate the results of a labor union vote, for example, or even the contest for a local high school prom king.

"I think our staff understands what's going on here," Salas said. "They know that this might not be over, so we're all standing by and ready to do whatever we are ordered by the court."

*

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue contributed to this story.

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