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A recounting of the travails of Palm Beach


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 3, 2000

WEST PALM BEACH -- On Thursday morning, Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore hugged her elections systems coordinator and watched him head north in a rented yellow truck loaded with presidential ballots.

There must have been at least an immediate sense of relief.

The presidential election circus was leaving town and heading to a Tallahassee courtroom. Still entirely uncertain, though, was whether Palm Beach could wave goodbye to its worldwide image as the capital of election ineptitude.

History may record Palm Beach County, home of the butterfly ballot and a bizarre surge in Pat Buchanan votes, as the Democratic stronghold that accidentally delivered the White House to George W. Bush.

Even after an election beset with confusion, wary elections officials, tugged every direction by partisan lawyers, dawdled, waffled and miscalculated until hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Palm Beach votes finally went uncertified in the presidential election.

Critics list a host of factors that led to the blown recount: a canvassing board chairman skeptical of the hand count from the start and determined to obtain repeated legal opinions; a similarly cautious county attorney postponing the recount; an elections supervisor unwilling to delegate basic tasks that ate up counting time; a big miscalculation in the number of questionable ballots needing review; a decision to take Thanksgiving off; Democratic legal challenges over the board's strict counting standards; Republicans forcing the canvassing board to examine ballots with seemingly clear Gore votes.

When the drama had finally played out, an exhausted canvassing board chairman faced the cameras and talked about hundreds of people who worked brutal hours to ensure an accurate count. His soft-spoken words could be interpreted any number of ways.

"This is democracy at its finest."

From early on Election Day, confusion was obvious

The trouble started early on Election Day. Bernice Steinman saw it almost immediately after arriving at her Boynton Beach precinct at 7:03 a.m. to work as a Democratic watcher. Over and over, voters questioned how to vote for Al Gore, and over and over voters complained about inaccurate precinct records preventing them from voting. Elections workers struggled to keep up, but couldn't get through to the main elections office.

Steinman, with a sinking feeling setting in, spent 2 hours and 45 minutes redialing the main elections office and never got through. Finally, she went home and faxed an urgent message to LePore's office: "Multiple problems at precinct 154A."

"I was so nervous and frustrated. There were so many people confused. I've been a poll watcher before and knew this shouldn't be and that there absolutely was a big problem," she said. "It was chaos. At one point, one of the (voting) machines fell over, with a woman who fell over too."

Irvin Blumberg, 85, who earned a Bronze Star in Normandy and still runs competitively, arrived at his Delray Beach precinct at about 9 a.m. Blumberg has good vision, has voted in more than 50 elections, and studied the sample ballot mailed to his home.

This was different. Al Gore's name was below George W. Bush's, but the punch card holes didn't seem to line up properly. Pat Buchanan's name was on the opposite side of the page.

"Hey, how do I vote for Gore," Blumberg asked poll workers. They were busy with other voters and told him to read the directions. (Many other Palm Beach voters with the same question say poll workers wrongly told them to punch the second hole).

Blumberg punched the second hole -- Buchanan's, he later realized -- because it seemed logical. He dropped his card in the ballot box with a mildly queasy feeling.

"I know I should have asked somebody first, but I didn't," Blumberg said. "Then I walked outside and people were going wild, everybody hollering. Half of them were positive they had mistakenly voted for Buchanan, and the other half weren't sure if they'd voted right or not."

Shortly after 3 p.m., LePore tried to clear up voter confusion with a notice sent to all precincts. Every voter, it stated, should "punch the hole next to the arrow, next to the number, next to the candidate they wish to vote for."

Within 24 hours, lawsuits started flying demanding a new Palm Beach election. America had an undecided presidential election, and the spotlight aimed most directly at the Palm Beach fiasco.

Getting ready for the Gore-demanded recounts

Theresa LePore, a registered Democrat, said her "butterfly ballot" was intended for easier reading by seniors, though she would never try it again.

Gore demanded manual recounts in Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade, and initially Palm Beach moved fast. On Saturday morning, the three-person, all Democrat canvassing board began painstakingly examining more than 4,600 presidential ballots, a 1 percent sample of the county's vote.

The canvassing board included the beleaguered LePore, looking shell-shocked, and Carol Roberts, a Democratic County commissioner with a Gore-Lieberman bumper sticker who was quickly tagged a partisan shill by Republicans.

Leading the board was County Judge Charles Burton, an amiable former assistant state attorney. Burton was tapped for the normally dull job because of his lack of seniority at the courthouse. Gov. Jeb Bush had appointed Burton, a registered Democrat, to the bench in May.

Unlike his counterparts in Volusia and Broward, Burton was dubious about the fairness of a hand-count from the start. That skepticism would play a huge role in Palm Beach's recount, leading to delays and a vote-tallying standard much stricter than Broward's and Miami-Dade's.

Adopting a system for counting votes immediately proved problematic, and questions about their standard would dog the canvassing board to the end. Board members first went through more than 600 votes looking for any signs of light through the tiny punch card chad. Republican observers objected constantly, and by early Saturday night board members backpedalled.

They started over, with a stricter standard that only counted ballots with the chad partially punched through. They rejected indented or dimpled chad. Democrats say the new standard came right after a break when Burton "went missing" for 30 minutes, and they question who he might have spoken to.

After 12 hours of counting, Gore picked up 33 votes and Bush 14. Then came the question of whether to launch a manual count of every ballot.

Democrats saw potentially big gains from a full hand count, and Republicans were determined to delay or prevent such a count. Burton was on the Republicans' side, arguing that the board should seek legal opinions first from Secretary of State Katherine Harris.

At 1:45 a.m. Sunday, however, LePore and Roberts outvoted Burton to press ahead with the recount.

"I do not feel we need to hear any more. The law is very clear," Roberts said.

Republican strategists were working frantically on two fronts -- get Roberts off the board because of her partisanship and delay the hand count.

J. Reeve Bright, a Delray Beach lawyer for the Bush campaign, had gathered information to knock down Roberts' assertion that her political activism ended with her bumper sticker. Among other things, Bright found Roberts had been raising money for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bill Nelson. The GOP chose not to push the issue, though, and Bright focused on delaying the full hand count.

"I did have a plan. I can't deny that," Bright said, chuckling at how the board, especially Roberts, walked into a "trap" that lost three days of counting.

Talk of the board seeking a legal opinion from Harris provided Bright's opening. Bright concluded that if the full board requested and received an opinion from Harris finding the count illegal, the board couldn't go forward with its count. He also knew the board was close to taking that step.

On Sunday, Burton made a motion to that effect, and LePore seconded it. Her lawyer, multi-millionaire trial lawyer Bob Montgomery, immediately told her to withdraw her support.

"I said, "You don't need an advisory opinion, and you definitely don't want an advisory opinion,"' recalled Montgomery, a generous Democratic contributor who has hosted Gore at his Palm Beach home.

But the next morning, Montgomery was in federal court in Miami over an unsuccessful GOP lawsuit to stop the hand counts. In Palm Beach, the canvassing board again took up the question of an advisory opinion, encouraged to seek one by Bright and a representative from Harris' office. This time, Roberts voted for it, thinking it wouldn't make much difference since the full hand count was about to start anyway.

As expected, Harris, a co-chairwoman of the Florida Bush campaign, said the hand count was illegal. Though Attorney General Bob Butterworth, chairman of Gore's Florida campaign, issued an opinion saying otherwise, the Palm Beach board held off on starting the count.

"No question, they were snookered by the Republicans," Montgomery said.

Broward County's elections supervisor received the same opinion, but the canvassing board pressed ahead with its hand count.

Palm Beach County Attorney Denise Dytrych played a key role in delaying the count. Dytrych, a Republican, told board members that because the full board sought the opinion, they could face criminal sanctions if they ignored it.

"I'm willing to go to jail," Roberts said, futilely.

Dytrych was soon fending off charges of partisanship. She had not attended a GOP function since a Young Republicans meeting 14 years earlier, she said, and the only fundraiser she'd ever attended was for Theresa LePore.

Harris, meanwhile, remained firm that she would not accept results past 5 p.m. Nov. 14, and Palm Beach joined a Volusia County lawsuit to force an extension.

Even after a local judge said the Palm Beach recount could proceed, the clock kept ticking with more 462,000 ballots sitting uncounted. The board continued waiting, after the Florida Supreme Court refused Harris' request to prevent hand counts.

Different criteria for same problem in neighboring counties

Finally, the Palm Beach count started about 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 16. after the state Supreme Court said the counts could proceed.

The differences between Broward's count and Palm Beach's were stark.

Palm Beach planned for some 30 teams of counters to begin the painstaking task; Broward had about twice that many. Often, fewer than 15 teams counted in Palm Beach.

Republican observers objected to so many seemingly clear-cut ballots that Burton repeatedly had to plea for observers to "be reasonable." Every ballot deemed questionable had to be examined by the canvassing board.

"Pile up the questionables and we'll sit here three weeks until Sunday, counting what is an obvious vote," Burton said.

County officials said ballot challenges by both sides cost time. "That totally logjammed our process from the beginning," said county spokeswoman Denise Cote. "No one was prepared for it. It was totally unnecessary."

LePore had estimated it would take six, 14-hour days to complete the manual count. Including a day off for Thanksgiving, it took 10 days.

LePore herself contributed to the slow pace. Though she had more than enough to do examining ballots, she insisted she also personally inspect each tally sheet. The board often took breaks to allow LePore to catch up on her tallying.

Donna Winchester, the former elections supervisor and LePore's mentor, expressed shock at LePore's inability to delegate "clerical" work.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Palm Beach officials were confident they would finish soon. While Democrats fumed about Burton and LePore refusing to count hundreds of indented chad as Gore votes -- they eventually estimated Gore should have picked up another 852 votes -- a county spokeswoman reported that more than 78 percent of the ballots had been counted.

That left more than 8,000 questionable ballots for the canvassing board to review. No one worried. Palm Beach County was cruising toward a finish by 11 p.m. Monday, Nov. 27.

Then the wheels began to come off.

The Florida Supreme Court okayed the recount, but set a stiffer deadline of 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 26. Only eight counting teams -- 32 people -- were in the auditorium when the high court issued its ruling.

"We will put in whatever time is necessary to make sure this is complete," Burton said with the relaxed confidence that had been his trademark.

The same bravado was on display the following morning -- the day before Thanksgiving -- when Burton showed up at a 9:30 a.m. court hearing. Democrats were challenging the canvassing board's strict policy about rejecting most dimpled chad.

Circuit Court Judge Jorge Labarga tried to hurry this proceeding, saying Burton needed to get back to counting fast. No rush, responded Burton. "I don't mind the break."

The next day, Broward's canvassing board spent most of Thanksgiving counting votes. Palm Beach took the day off.

Burton defended the move, saying board members and hundreds of other support staff involved in the count were exhausted and needed a break.

By Saturday, members of the canvassing board continued to express confidence they could finish, despite clear signs they were in trouble. Elections officials underestimated the number of questionable ballots remaining by several thousand, and canvassing board members kept a pace nearly half as fast as necessary. Their all-nighter wasn't enough.

Sunday came, and Roberts and Burton remained jovial, cheerfully chatting during a break with Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Richard Lugar of Indiana.

At midday, Burton faxed a request to Katherine Harris for another night to finish. He acknowledged her approval was unlikely, but also pleaded by phone for Division of Elections Director Clay Roberts to give them just 21/2 hours. When Harris' formal rejection came at 3:30 p.m., Burton fumed that an extra couple hours would have made no difference to the state.

Finally, the board faxed to Tallahassee its nearly complete recount tally. It took another one hour and 46 minutes to finish the remaining few hundred votes, but then Harris appeared on a giant television screen announcing that none of Palm Beach's manual recount would be accepted. The grueling recount didn't count.

Burton, rumpled and exhausted, was the only canvassing board to face the media afterward.

"It's a strange feeling. I really don't feel our efforts were wasted," he said.

A few blocks away, inside a local union hall that served as the Democrats' war room, sat a stack of boxes. Inside were more than 10,000 sworn statements from Palm Beach voters complaining that they had effectively lost their right to vote.

- Staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Palm Beach Post and Associated Press.

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