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By DAVID ADAMS and DAVID BALLINGRUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 23, 2000
Vice President Al Gore took a big step backward Wednesday in his hoped-for march to the White House when the Miami-Dade County canvassing board threw up its hands and decided to abandon its vote recount.
He took a step forward later in the day, however, when a Palm Beach County circuit judge ordered election officials to consider as many as 2,000 so-called dimpled ballots in their manual recount.
But the step backward in Miami-Dade may have been the bigger of the two. Democratic Party officials immediately went to a state appeals court to ask for an order to restart the recount, but the court turned them down late Wednesday.
Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, said the Gore camp planned an appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.
The Miami-Dade canvassing board reached its decision under increasing legal, logistical, vocal and even physical pressure. The move came a day after the Florida Supreme Court ruled that hand recounts could go forward and set a deadline of 5 p.m. Sunday for results to be submitted.
Gore had gained a net 157 votes in the Miami-Dade recount with 135 of 614 precincts completed. But after the board's action Wednesday, hundreds of extra votes that Republicans feared would go to Gore instead went nowhere.
Texas Gov. George W. Bush has a 930-vote lead in Florida out of 6-million cast.
The Miami-Dade County board first decided to accelerate the counting of questionable ballots, but Republicans protested furiously, and after a morning of angry shouting by protesters, the chairman said he had concluded it was physically impossible to get the job done by the Florida Supreme Court's deadline.
"I do not believe we have the ability to conduct a full, accurate recount" under the limits, said Lawrence King.
The board's unanimous decision was greeted with jubilation by Republican supporters who flocked to the downtown government center to chant victory slogans.
"Finally, common sense has taken over in Miami-Dade County," said U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican.
Earlier, Republicans had been less celebratory after the board came up with a plan to meet the court's deadline.
Faced with the apparent impossibility of recounting all of the county's 654,000 votes, the board opted instead to count only an estimated 10,750 "undercounted" ballots. These are ballots that voters had failed to punch properly in order for their choice to be registered by vote-counting machines.
But in order to do that, the board first had to segregate those ballots from the rest by passing them again through counting machines.
Unlike the manual recount, which has taken place in full public view in a large room on the 18th floor, the vote machines are kept in a tabulation room on the 19th floor that was too small to allow full access to Republican and Democrat observers and the media.
As the process was about to get under way, a crowd of Republican supporters tried to break into the tabulation room. Protesters jostled with security officers and pounded on the doors of the room shouting, "Cheaters, let us in!"
When one leading Democrat left the room he was spottied carrying a ballot. Several people in the crowd accused him of stealing votes. When he tried to leave the building he was chased by Republicans, some shouting, "Stop, thief!"
The man turned out to be Miami Democratic Party chairman Joe Geller. He was escorted back into the building by police. The ballot turned out to be a sample handed out to all observers.
Democrats claimed the board had been bullied into submission by Republican strong-arm tactics. "They folded to pressure after all these yelling people came down here," said U.S. Rep. Carrie Meek, a Miami Democrat, shouting to be heard. "This was an orchestrated campaign of intimidation by the Bush campaign."
Board members strongly rejected such allegations, saying their decision was based on a lack of time and logistics. King, the chairman of the canvassing board, is a Democrat. The other two board members, Myriam Lehr and David Leahy, have no party affiliation.
In Palm Beach County, Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga's ruling means the three-member canvassing board must consider up to 2,000 questionable dimpled ballots -- ones that have no punch-through but perhaps show an indentation -- that had been set aside while Labarga considered the case.
Labarga said the three-member board, all Democrats, can reject dimpled ballots only after seeking to determine voters' intent. He said county election supervisors must reject any ballot in which they cannot discern a voter's intent.
"Since the will of the people is the paramount consideration, and the purpose of our election laws is to obtain a correct expression of the intent of the voters . . . that intention should be given effect," Labarga wrote.
Jack Corrigan, attorney for the Florida Democratic Party, praised the ruling.
"We believe it sends a clear signal to the canvassing board that these votes are presumed to be valid," Corrigan said. "He clearly leaves the judgment to the canvassing board in determining the intention of the votes cast by each voter."
Bush spokesman Tucker Eskew had little to say except that Republican lawyers were reviewing the decision.
As the court dramas played out, the head of the county's canvassing board told vote recounters to stay the course. Circuit Judge Charles Burton told elections workers they would have Thanksgiving Day off despite the Supreme Court's deadline. By Wednesday morning, workers had recounted all but 102,000 of the 462,350 ballots cast in Palm Beach County on Election Day, and Burton said he expected the job to be finished by the end of the day. The canvassing board plans to meet Friday and Saturday to go through the objectionable ballots. If necessary, workers would return Sunday to finish the hand count.
In Broward County, election officials agreed Wednesday to sacrifice part of their Thanksgiving holiday to finish a hand recount before the deadline.
Broward County appeared to be the first of the three counties to complete the process as workers finished recounting all 588,000 ballots from 609 precincts and most of the absentee ballots. The three-member canvassing commission will reconvene at 9 a.m today to continue going through the remaining absentee and questionable ballots.
By Wednesday afternoon, Al Gore had gained a net of 137 votes beyond the numbers previously certified by the state. The board still has to go through as many as 2,000 critical disputed ballots.
- Information from Times wires was used in this report.