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Hand counts not turning tide for Gore

He has only cut into Bush's lead by about 16 percent.


© St. Petersburg Times, published November 21, 2000

Republicans feared and Democrats hoped that a hand count of presidential ballots in South Florida would easily push Al Gore ahead of George W. Bush.

It's not working out that way.

So far, the controversial and painstaking manual counts in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties have only slightly chipped into Bush's lead of 930 certified votes. Hundreds of precincts have yet to be tallied in the Democratic strongholds, but the early results show no dramatic surge in Gore votes.

By Monday night, the hand counts had only netted Gore 179 votes -- 117 in Broward, three in Palm Beach and 59 in Miami-Dade. With 40 percent of the precincts manually recounted in the three counties, Gore had only cut Bush's 930-vote lead in overseas and certified votes by about 16 percent.

That means even if the Florida Supreme Court rules the hand recounts must be accepted, as Gore wants, it still may not be enough for Gore to overtake Bush. A continued weak showing in the hand tallies could also undercut Gore's justification for pursuing more legal challenges in the name of protecting the will of the voters.

Dimples look like Gore's best shot.

Broward County's canvassing board, made up of two Democrats and one Republican, voted unanimously Sunday to loosen their standards for what constitutes a vote when examining questionable ballots.

They had been counting only ballots where the punch card's rectangular piece of chad was separated at two or more corners. But at the advice of Broward County Attorney Ed Dion, a registered Republican, the board agreed to start counting "dimpled," or indented chad, as well as chad with only one corner separated.

Canvassing board members say that new standard could add hundreds, if not a couple thousand, new votes to the Broward count. Republicans are crying foul.

"Let's talk about what is happening here," Shari McCartney, a Republican Party attorney, barked at Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch during a break in the recount Monday. "They're changing the rules so they can get the votes they need."

In Palm Beach County, Gore was leading Bush by only three votes by Monday evening. However, lawyers for the Gore campaign were pressing the canvassing board there to adopt a standard similar to Broward's.

If dimpled chad were counted, Gore would have gained about 200 votes, said Dennis Newman, counsel to the Florida Democratic Party. Democrats had challenged 277 dimpled chad in Palm Beach, while Republicans had protested 73, he said.

Democrats say it's unlikely that scores of voters would intentionally skip the presidential contest. In one Delray Beach precinct where Democrats said they found dimpled ballots, about 12 percent of the total voters -- or 182 people -- did not vote for anyone for president. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the precinct 1248 to 416.

Bush supporters say a dimple on a ballot didn't necessarily mean that a voter had tried to vote for one candidate. The voter might have started to vote for one candidate, but then could have changed his mind.

But even some Democrats are dubious about dimpled chad.

Former gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Rick Dantzler, a Polk County Democrat, said the Gore campaign has gone too far in trying to find additional votes and that a ballot merely indented should not be counted.

"I don't really know at what point (Gore) ought to concede, but I think we're getting close," Dantzler said.

As the hand counts plodded on and party operatives leveled charges back and forth, patience began to wear thin at elections offices.

In Miami-Dade, canvassing board chairman Lawrence King rose from his chair at one point to admonish campaign observers for slowing the process by asking county employees questions as they inspected the ballots. One worker was asked to leave after she and a supervisor got into a heated exchange.

Miami-Dade officials had recounted 78 of 614 precincts.

Republicans complained the board was too loosely interpreting questionable ballots. U.S. Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, suggested they might be perpetrating "fraud," a charge Democratic lawyer Kendall Coffey called "outrageous."

King said there was no favoritism being shown to either side, and that the rules were consistent for both parties.

"It's up to the canvassing board to determine what the intent (of the voter) is," King said.

In Broward, Jane Carroll, the county's supervisor of elections and its lone Republican member, announced she was quitting the recount today to go on a family vacation. She was promptly replaced by a Broward County criminal court judge, Robert Rosenberg, who was appointed to the bench by Gov. Jeb Bush.

"Personally, I can't continue with these 15-hour days. I have to think of my health. I'm not as young as I used to be," said Carroll, 70, who was elected in 1968 and is one of Broward's few elected Republicans.

Broward County is farthest along in the count, having recounted by hand 544 out of 609 precincts through Monday. Officials hope to complete their count as early as today.

The count there has been rancorous too. Republicans accused elections officials of changing the rules to help Gore, while Democrats charged Republican observers with overzealously challenging ballots clearly intended for Gore.

In Palm Beach County, where 103 of 531 precincts had been completed by Monday, a court decision Monday underscored the importance of the recount to Gore. Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga ruled that he did not have legal authority to order a new election, as a number of citizens' lawsuits sought. Lawyers promised to appeal.

Many Gore supporters say the county's unusual "butterfly" ballot layout prompted them to cast their votes unintentionally for Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan. A machine count found that 19,000 people in the county voted for at least two presidential candidates, and 10,000 voted for no presidential candidate.

Gore's campaign had not joined any of five lawsuits, which were filed by individual voters and consolidated into one case. But Democratic lawyers followed the proceedings closely.

- Staff writers Bill Adair and Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report.

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