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Papers' ballot examination presses forward

An effort by the media and others to peruse undervoted presidential ballots in Florida turns its attention to Hillsborough.

By WAYNE WASHINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 22, 2000


TAMPA -- It looked like another recount. Ballots were again being held up to the light at the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office processing center on Falkenburg Road on Thursday. The meaning of chads -- dimpled, pregnant, hanging and otherwise -- was being carefully discerned by a team of weary-eyed examiners.

But it was not an official recount. It was a mass reporting project.

Reporters from several newspapers, including the Ledger of Lakeland, the St. Petersburg Times, the Tampa Tribune and the Miami Herald, examined more than 300 of Hillsborough's 5,533 uncounted ballots Thursday to compile information that could be used in stories.

The news organizations paid the elections office for the time of seven staffers, a few of whom were the only ones allowed to actually touch the ballots.

Reporters, local Republican Party officials and representatives of Judicial Watch, a Washington, D.C., conservative legal watchdog group, sat at two tables examining ballots elections office workers held up in front of them. Two men stood nearby to bring forward the boxes of ballots being examined.

Colleagues of the journalists examining the ballots stood in an adjacent room watching through a large window and reporting on what they saw.

Local Democrats declined to participate but were glad reporters are examining the ballots.

"They're completing something that was never completed," said Hillsborough Democratic Party Chairman Mike Scionti.

Republican officials, meanwhile, wondered why yet another examination was being undertaken. The party paid to have observers sit at the table as the reporters examined the ballots.

"I'm not sure what it proves," said Mark Proctor, a local Republican Party member. "Whatever the final results are, I'm not sure what that accomplishes. On Jan. 20, George Bush is going to get sworn in regardless of what happens."

The news organizations, including the New York Times Co., which owns the Ledger, made public records requests of elections officials throughout the state to get access to the ballots.

The so-called "undervote" ballots did not record votes because voters didn't punch holes next to the names of the presidential candidates or didn't punch all the way through.

The news organizations, a few of which are allied in a consortium, are looking to see whether the ballots have dimpled chads, hanging chads or holes.

With Bush winning Florida -- and thus the presidency -- by just a few hundred votes, an examination of the undervote could shed new light on what happened on election night.

"It's like a social science study," said Ford Fessenden, a New York Times reporter who watched the examination. "We're trying to objectify this subjective decision."

The news organizations in the consortium -- the St. Petersburg Times, the Orlando Sentinel and the Ledger -- had their reporters fill out a detailed information sheet. On that sheet were spaces for ballots with dimples and a small hole, dimples but no hole, chads with one corner separated, chads with two corners separated, and chads with three corners separated.

The information sheets allowed the reporters to categorize ballots that were blank, cleanly punched or punched in the wrong spot. There even was a spot to categorize ballots where voters put an "X" or a pen mark on the ballot.

Some of the news organizations at the table Thursday used their own categorization system, increasing the likelihood that they would come up with different results.

Wouldn't that just confuse an already confused electorate?

"There's no confusion from looking at more information," said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch. "People are interested in what happened in Florida. The only way to know that is to do an independent analysis."

That analysis continues today and late next week.

- Wayne Washington can be reached at (813) 226-2287 or washington@sptimes.com.

Recent coverage

Big accounting firms turn down this count (December 19, 2000)

Media to take fresh look at ballots (December 19, 2000)

A way to mollify political suspicions (December 17, 2000)

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