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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Ballots Readied for Their Road Trip

November 30, 2000|MIKE CLARY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — The 1.1 million ballots that will be convoyed to the state capital beginning today are only made of paper. But they might as well be gold.

This morning, votes from Palm Beach County, Fla., are being packed into an armored police truck, with unmarked cars in front and behind, for the 390-mile ride to Tallahassee, Fla. Observers from both major parties likely will tag along.

Then on Friday, the ballots from Miami-Dade County will embark on a 10-hour road trip, in the custody of a heavily armed police SWAT team.

"We may have to get two trucks now," Miami-Dade assistant supervisor of elections Gisela Salas commented when she learned late Wednesday that all the county's ballots--not just 10,700 disputed votes--were to be hauled north.

"But we'll still have marked police vehicles in front and behind."

A judge's order that all ballots from the two counties must arrive in Tallahassee by 5 p.m. Friday sent election officials in Miami and West Palm Beach scrambling to pack the ballots in steel boxes and make travel plans.

In the increasingly contentious election aftermath, the order also set up the prospect of some strange bedfellows. Miami-Dade police said that only one civilian vehicle would be permitted in their convoy, meaning that observers from both Democratic and Republican parties would have to ride in the same car.

With TV news helicopters likely to track the motorcade on its route, the event also could prove to be the most-watched ride on a public highway since the 1994 slow-speed police chase of O.J. Simpson.

Vice President Al Gore had asked a Leon County circuit judge in Tallahassee to order that 14,000 "under-votes" from the two counties--ballots in which counting machines did not register any presidential vote--be tallied by hand and included in the state's election results.

If examined by hand, Gore's attorneys contend, he would likely pick up enough votes to overtake Texas Gov. George W. Bush's 537-vote lead and win the state's 25 electoral votes--and the White House.

But Bush's lawyers said any counting should include all ballots cast in the two counties--654,000 in Miami-Dade and 462,000 in Palm Beach County.

Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls will not decide until Saturday whether the ballots will be hand-counted, but he ordered that all of them be available in Tallahassee just in case.

The judge's order signaled an abrupt end Wednesday to the auditing of the more than 10,000 under-votes in the 19th-floor tabulation room in downtown Miami. Tensions had been running high.

After some early skirmishing between Democrats and Republican observers over procedures to be used in handling the vote cards, four teams of election workers began to separate the under-votes from other ballots in each of 614 precincts.

In the midafternoon, two Democrats, U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York and U.S. Rep. Robert E. Andrews of New Jersey, stopped to look at the process. "It's smooth-running," Schumer said.

Andrews said he was impressed by what he did not see: "No irregularities, monkey business or anything controversial."

"I didn't see any chads at all," added Schumer, speaking of the tiny bits of paper dislodged from a ballot when a voter punches a choice.

But Republican observers charged that chads were flying. "The office of elections is to transport the ballots, not transform them," said Emily Kertz, a spokeswoman for the Bush campaign. "These ballots are being handled in a manner that is disturbing."

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