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Media to take fresh look at ballots

Starting with Broward, newspapers try to answer the questions left hanging. The political parties have not objected.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 19, 2000

FORT LAUDERDALE -- Almost a week after the presidential election was finally resolved, Florida ballots continued to receive intense scrutiny at a Broward County warehouse Monday.

With official Electoral College votes already counted, it won't make any difference to the final result. But for a number of media organizations, including the St. Petersburg Times, as well as a conservative legal group, the process is not over.

The latest ballot inspection is part of a continued effort to understand what went wrong with the election in Florida.

"It's part of our fundamental responsibilities to examine how government works, and that includes the election process," said Paul C. Tash, editor and president of the St. Petersburg Times. "We really need to look at the ballots that were cast but not counted, on a comprehensive, coherent and authoritative basis."

The intention is to create a scientific database from which to analyze the thousands of ballots rejected by counting machines. The ballots were divided into categories varying from "blank" to different types of detached and dimpled "chads."

But media executives say the exercise is not meant to undermine the official results in any way. Instead, it is being conducted as a matter of public curiosity.

"We are not counting votes," said Mark Seibel, assistant managing editor of the Miami Herald. "All we are doing is describing if the ballot is dimpled. We are not deciding what's dimpled enough to count."

For its part, the Herald has hired an accounting firm, BDO Seidman, to provide a professional audit of all uncounted ballots in the state's 67 counties. A team of newspapers and other media, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and St. Petersburg Times, is considering plans to carry out a coordinated statewide ballot examination. The Palm Beach Post is also examining ballots and the Associated Press may get involved, too.

Media executives said they were using the Broward County effort as a two-day test inspection to determine whether a full statewide review of all "undercounted" ballots would be feasible.

Attorneys for the media companies have filed public records requests in every county. Broward County was chosen first because of the quick response of election officials there and the availability of its ballots. Other ballots from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties currently are stored in Tallahassee, where they were taken during the legal proceedings. They are to be returned later this week, a judge ruled on Monday.

Because members of the public are not allowed to handle the ballots, the process is being overseen by county election officials. The county agreed to the inspection, at a charge of $300 an hour.

Attorneys for George W. Bush have not objected to the process, although Republican officials were not impressed. "We are not going to learn anything from this process," said George LeMieux, chairman of the Broward County Republican Party. "The devil is in the details. How many kinds of dimples are there?"

LeMieux said three-member canvassing boards had trouble agreeing on standards to be applied to votes. "Now we have a dozen press people trying to work out what a vote is. All this is just guesswork."

But attorneys for Al Gore welcomed the focus on the ballots. "We are thrilled that the fourth estate -- the media -- is taking the time to review all of these ballots," said Ben Kuehne, one of the Gore legal team in Miami.

Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties conducted manual recounts last month after they were requested by the Gore campaign, but Broward was the only one to finish by the Nov. 26 deadline. Gore gained 567 votes as a result of that hand recount. But the Broward votes were later rejected by last week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Also present at Monday's ballot inspection were a team of accountants hired by Judicial Watch, a Washington-based legal watchdog group, and Randy and Judy Cernick, a Fort Lauderdale couple.

"We want to use this to propose methods of rationalizing the voting system," said Larry Klayman, the chairman of Judicial Watch.

The Cernicks said they felt compelled to come and see the ballots for themselves after watching the manual recount on television. "We were unhappy with what we saw on TV," said Randy Cernick, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel. "They didn't seem to be using any standard."

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