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Miami-Dade will have recount too

Supreme Court decision persuades canvassing board to manually recount all the county's ballots.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, DAVID KARP and ERIC STIRGUS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000


FORT LAUDERDALE -- The hunt was on Friday for votes in South Florida, the region that provides the best hope for Al Gore's quest to catch up with Republican George W. Bush.

Invigorated by the state Supreme Court's ruling, voter-rich Miami-Dade leapt into the Florida recount and made plans to begin a hand tally Monday. It would join Broward and Palm Beach counties, whose counts dragged on Friday.

"We are not leaving; we are spending our lives here," said Suzanne Gunzburger, one of two Democrats on the three-member Broward County canvassing board.

Gore won all three South Florida counties, and Democrats are expecting to reap hundreds more votes if the recount is carried to its completion, perhaps after Thanksgiving. But by day's end, Gore had netted less than 40 votes from Broward and Palm Beach.

Republicans, meanwhile, continued an aggressive ground game of their own, declaring the recount illegal and fraught with subjectivity and partisan bias. At one point Friday, they forced the Broward County canvassing board into court, temporarily interrupting the count. A judge sent them back to work and denied a Republican request for a full-blown trial that sought to end the recount.

It was another legal action -- this one in Tallahassee -- that prompted the Miami-Dade canvassing board to reverse itself Friday and order a hand recount.

The same board had balked at a full county hand recount on Tuesday.

Board member Myriam Lehr, who reversed her position from Tuesday to support the recount, said she was influenced by the Florida Supreme Court's decision Friday afternoon that prevented Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris from certifying the election result today.

"That definitely convinced me that this is the right thing to do for the people of Dade County," Lehr said, clasping her hands in front of her face.

"It is going to be remembered as a shining moment for this country," said Kendall Coffey, one of the members of a small army of lawyers working for the Gore campaign in Florida.

The Miami-Dade canvassing board will meet this morning to decide how to proceed with a count that Supervisor of Elections David Leahy said would probably not be completed until after Thanksgiving -- an assessment that Gore's attorneys disputed.

'Objection, objection, objection'

Up the coast, in Broward and Palm Beach counties, two very contentious manual recounts were well under way.

In West Palm Beach, vote counter Charles Anderson, 43, watched the ballots pass his hands without noticing many problems.

One vote for Al Gore, two for George W. Bush, another hole punched for Gore.

Though Anderson didn't see any problems with most ballots, the Republican and Democratic observers hovering behind him kept repeating:

"Objection, objection, objection."

Hundreds of objections to the Palm Beach's tally of 462,000 ballots significantly slowed down the hand recount Friday, raising the likelihood that the massive effort begun late Thursday could run past Thanksgiving Day. At its current pace, the recount in Palm Beach, estimated to take six days, could last as long as 10.

"We are hoping the number of objections to ballots will decrease," said Judge Charles Burton, chairman of Palm Beach's canvassing board.

Burton asked top lawyers for both candidates to calm down their observers. In one precinct, observers objected to 281 ballots, Burton said. But when the canvassing board reviewed the questionable pile, lawyers found problems with only three. Counters leaving the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center said Republicans seemed to be doing most of the objections.

"Some of the Republicans are challenging just to challenge," said Anderson, a self-employed adjuster who voted for Gore. "I'm a Republican -- but I call it like it is."

The 'tit-for-tat table'

The Broward board experienced the same problem as officials labored to meet a self-imposed deadline of 5 p.m. Monday to count more than 588,000 ballots.

As they have since Wednesday, the three-member board of two Democrats and one Republican worked under the close watch of six observers -- three from each party who scrutinized each ballot as board chairman Robert W. Lee held them gingerly at the corners between his forefinger and thumb.

The board's job: to make final decisions on ballots that were contested by 50 counting teams working in a large adjoining room at the Emergency Operations Center.

The teams, consisting of two counters and an observer from each party, sent hundreds of ballots to the canvassing board. One team had so many contested ballots for one precinct -- 43 -- that Lee dubbed them the "tit-for-tat table."

The ballots contained clear votes for Gore and Bush but apparently the two sides mounted challenges just to keep each other honest.

The counting was interrupted shortly before 1 p.m. because the canvassing board was due in court to face a Republican lawsuit that sought an immediate trial and a verdict declaring the recount illegal.

A hearing before Circuit Judge Leonard Stafford provided some of the most dramatic scenes of the post-election crisis, as attorneys for the two parties objected and interrupted each other in a pitched courtroom battle.

"For some reason, they are petrified about the canvassing board doing their job," said Democratic lawyer Leonard Samuels.

"We are petrified," boomed Republican lawyer William Scherer in a loud, forceful voice. "This scares us to death. This scares the nation to death. . . . We're petrified that they're going to take Broward County with these subjective methods."

Stafford kept asking the same question of Republicans: "Where is the emergency?"

He later said their request for a trial was premature, marking the week's third Republican defeat in Broward courts.

Afterward, Broward Republican chairman Ed Pozzuoli, upset by the ruling, began shouting at U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat.

"What are they afraid of with the sunshine of the courtroom?" Pozzuoli asked reporters. "America should know that. The Democrats are afraid of having a trial court hear this in a fair trial."

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