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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Law Firm Begins Inspecting Palm Beach County Ballots

November 29, 2000|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — A conservative law firm that has invoked Florida's broad open-government laws to request access to all ballots cast in the presidential election began inspecting disputed votes Tuesday in Palm Beach County. A similar inspection was to begin Thursday in Miami-Dade County.

The move incensed Democrats, who say the ballots are potential evidence in legal skirmishing underway in Tallahassee. Lawyers representing Vice President Al Gore are due to appear today before Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga to seek an order to block the inspection.

"It's outrageous," said Lance Block, a Democratic observer in Palm Beach County. "The possibility of the integrity of those ballots somehow being compromised is high."

Gore's lawyers on Monday asked a state court to order that uncounted or disputed ballots in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Nassau counties be turned over to a court-appointed special master in Tallahassee. They contend that thousands of votes for Gore--enough to give him the state's 25 electoral votes--remain uncounted.

The inspection of the Palm Beach ballots began Tuesday by volunteers working for Judicial Watch, a Washington-based public interest law firm.

Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton said his group is not recounting, but is reviewing the standards for hand-counted ballots.

"What we are doing is looking at ballots rejected by machine--those with hanging chad, dimples--to see if all the ballots with a certain characteristic are going to one particular candidate," he said.

"Our problem is that we do not trust Republicans or Democrats to hand-count ballots. They are partisans."

Under threat of legal action by Judicial Watch, Palm Beach election officials early Tuesday hauled out boxes of the same ballots that the county's three-member canvassing board had labored over for days as the nation watched on television.

Thus, about 36 hours after completing a marathon all-night hand count of ballots Sunday, beleagured election supervisor Theresa LePore found herself back at work in the public eye, this time holding the ballot cards up for Judicial Watch chairman and general counsel Larry Klayman. Neither he nor any of the dozens of others observers in the emergency operations center were permitted to touch the punch cards.

Klayman said he wanted to determine the standards that LePore, Judge Charles Burton and Palm Beach Commissioner Carol Roberts had used to gauge voter intent.

By examining the undercounts--or those ballots on which the machine registered no presidential vote--Fitton said the group wanted "to come up with a set of numbers that describe the ballots physically--dimpled, hanging chad, etc.--so people can compare what votes went for whom."

Added Fitton: "This is going to take a few days. The level of cooperation of Ms. LePore has not been of the highest."

Judicial Watch has asked to review ballots in all 67 Florida counties, and sued three that fought the request, Fitton said. They are Palm Beach, Broward and Volusia.

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Associated Press contributed to this story.

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