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Card by card, boards look for voters' intent

By ADAM C. SMITH and THOMAS C. TOBIN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 23, 2000


PLANTATION -- You make the call:

A Broward County absentee voter included a hand-written note on his presidential ballot. "I punched for George Bush by accident. I meant to vote for Al Gore."

Should Gore get the vote?

No, decided Broward's Democrat-dominated canvassing board. It tossed the ballot.

"Do they really think the computer's going to read their little letter?" said board chairman Robert W. Lee.

The exchange, just a few seconds out of the board's 15-hour-a-day week of manual ballot counting, highlighted the murky areas canvassing boards in Palm Beach and Broward counties are wading through as they strive to interpret the will of voters.

For whatever reason, thousands of voters didn't adequately punch out the tiny rectangular squares, or chads, on their punch card ballot. So the next occupant of the White House could be determined by how half a dozen obscure local election officials perceive hanging, pregnant, taped and, especially, dimpled chads.

What if a voter punched out a square for Gore but then circled another square for Bush? What if a voter clearly voted for every Democrat candidate on the ballot but left only a barely visible indentation, or "dimple," on Bush's chad? What if that chad's dimple looks more like an unmistakable massive pimple?

There are an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 questionable ballots in Broward County, most of them with puzzling "dimples." In Palm Beach, Democrats figure Gore can pick up about 300 votes if the canvassing board counts questionably marked ballots.

Generally speaking, the Democrats want even the slightest dimple counted, and the Republicans want even the biggest one rejected.

It appears they'll get something in between. Rather than a sweeping, hard and fast standard, the boards likely will look at each on a case-by-case basis.

"I'd say it's objectively subjective," Lee, a Democratic county judge in Broward, said of his board's decisionmaking. "It's not just on a whim."

In Palm Beach on Wednesday, Democratic lawyers asked a judge to order the canvassing board to count dimpled chads as votes, arguing the count should err on the side of giving voters a voice.

"In all candor, determining intent from a ballot card is impossible," Charles Burton, a Palm Beach county judge and canvassing board chairman, told Palm Beach Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga at a morning hearing.

Burton said the canvassing board has tried to set a standard by counting dimpled votes for president only when the remainder of the ballot has dimples. In cases where the rest of the ballot is cleanly punched, he said, the lone dimpled vote for president does not count.

Democrats said that standard is too rigid and disenfranchised thousands of voters. But Burton invited them to suggest a better way to deal with dimpled ballots.

"I don't know if that's a vote," he told Labarga. "I don't know what the person did. It's a ballot card. And unless we see consistently throughout that ballot card some pattern that that's how that person voted, I don't know how else we could determine that's an intent."

Burton added: "To be consistent in this election has been a difficult task to say the least."

By late afternoon, Lebarga issued a lukewarm ruling that left discretion on chads to the canvassing board, indirectly suggesting that it might consider a more liberal standard when deciding whether dimples should constitute votes. But the ruling failed to give the board the clear direction Democrats sought.

As the circuit judge in West Palm Beach took up the dimpled chad question there, Broward's board heard more arguments for and against dimples.

Bill Scherer, a Broward lawyer representing the GOP, reminded the board that it initially decided the "objective standard" was counting only chads with at least two corners broken from the ballot.

He produced a sworn statement from one Broward voter, William Rohloff, who said he started to vote for Al Gore, but couldn't bring himself to do it. If he left an indent, Rohloff told the Republican Party, he didn't want his vote to count for Gore.

"If you want to count that as a vote for Gore, you disenfranchise him," Scherer said. "As you go down this journey as to how you divine voters' intent, remember William Rohloff."

David Boies, lead attorney for Gore, said indents obviously show a voter's intent.

"You don't go around making that indentation on a ballot if you don't intend to make a vote," he said. "Although nothing in this life is 100 percent certain, it is reasonably probable" that an indentation was meant as a vote.

As if the chads didn't pose enough of a question, adhesive tape proved to be a major issue for Broward's board Wednesday. The board, nearly finished with its hand count of 588,000 ballots, faced 105 absentee ballots where voters had taped presidential chads back into place and then punched out another chad.

Initially, the Broward board had decided to reject them all as double votes, but changed its mind after reviewing court opinions. Members concluded those voters clearly intended to vote for the properly punched candidate and not for the one whose chad was taped back in place.

The result of all those taped ballots? Gore gained 88 votes, Bush gained seven and Ralph Nader one. The rest were rejected. By the end of Wednesday's count, Gore had a net gain of 137 votes in Broward.

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