- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 23, 2000

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. Al Gore's hopes to become president now rest on two counties one that has tabulated nearly all its ballots for the third time and another that was told it can disregard "dimpled" ballots if it chooses.
The decision by Miami-Dade County yesterday to halt its recount means only Broward and Palm Beach counties are still counting. Both are scurrying to make a 5 p.m. Sunday deadline set by the Florida Supreme Court a timetable Miami-Dade said yesterday it just couldn't meet.
"It would be a minor feat and miracle for us to do it," board Chairman Lawrence King said of the prospects of completing the review of 10,750 disputed ballots. Mr. King got choked up and apologized that the hand recount could not be completed.
Early results there showed Mr. Gore gaining 157 votes on George W. Bush in the first 135 of 614 precincts recounted. The vice president lost those gains when the county voted to end the recount.
Mr. Gore faces an uphill battle without Miami-Dade, the most populous county in the state. Broward has already recounted votes in all 609 precincts, but it has nearly 2,000 ballots in the "disputed ballots" pile.
Palm Beach County has recounted 217 of 531 precincts, but Mr. Gore has not fared well so far Mr. Bush has picked up 14 votes. But there are more than 10,000 set-aside ballots that the Democrat-controlled election board will consider in light of an order yesterday by Circuit Court Judge Jorge Labarga.
In his ruling, the judge said the board must consider dimpled ballots in which a voter only indented the portion of the ballot that should have been punched clean through. But he also said the three-member board must reject any vote in which the board could not discern the intent of the voter.
"The board cannot have in place a policy which provides for a per se exclusion" of unpunctured or partially punched ballots, Judge Labarga said in his order.
While the judge's decision was seen by some observers as a setback to Republicans, who argued that the stringent standards employed in Palm Beach County were in keeping with state law, it was immediately praised by the Bush camp, in part because it did not directly address the issue of dimpled ballots.
"There is much to be pleased about," said Tucker Eskew, a spokesman for Mr. Bush.
An attorney for the state Democratic Party, however, said that while the order clearly leaves the judgment of ballots to the three-member canvassing board, "If they don't read this the way we do, we will end up in court," Jack Corrigan said.
Local attorney Barry Silver, who represents several groups of voters who feel they were denied their right to vote by a flawed ballot, said the ruling "clearly shows a general standard."
The state Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against the Palm Beach board, which, Democratic lawyer Dennis Newman claimed, has rejected 557 Gore votes and 260 Bush votes because the ballots were dimpled.
On Tuesday, counters and observers set aside 1,900 votes for further consideration by the board. The number could swell to 15,000 before the counting is completed this weekend.
With Miami-Dade out of the picture and Broward netting light Gore votes, Mr. Gore's hopes hinge on the ballot scrutiny of the Palm Beach County board.
During testimony in the Democratic lawsuit yesterday, County Judge Charles Burton, a Democrat who chairs the canvassing board, said that a lone dimple next to a candidate's name called for rejection because "We don't know if they touched it … we felt we couldn't determine their intent."
Republicans clearly have the edge after the day's events. The Miami-Dade decision stole hundreds of votes from Mr. Gore, and Palm Beach County is unlikely to yield enough votes to overcome Mr. Bush's official, uncertified 930-vote lead.
The all-Democratic panel has employed a stringent standard for what constitutes a valid vote, using the "two-corner rule" that the board believes is the word of the law.
Mr. Burton testified yesterday that ballots came in all variations; some had Mr. Gore written as a write-in vote, others had the name of a presidential candidate written on the side, and still others have every single hole punched.
During a hand recount of four sample precincts four days after the election, the board vacillated between the two-corner rule and a less stringent policy of looking through the ballot for light, which was protested by Republicans.
At times clutching one of the ballyhooed ballots, Mr. Burton told the court that "if there is one indentation, we are saying it doesn't show voter intent. If the law says that we should, then we should go back and do it over."
The eliminated ballots have not been tossed but are kept separate.
Democratic attorney Ben Kuehne drilled Mr. Burton on voter intent: "When you are discarding these ballots, do you have any evidence that the voter did not intend to cast a ballot?" he asked.
"The only assumption we make as a group is that if they didn't punch out a ballot, we don't know their intent," Mr. Burton said.
Afterward, Mr. Burton played down the impact of Judge Labarga's decision. He said the board has already been reviewing ballots on a case-by-case basis. "I'm not certain that there's anything additional this board needs to do," he said.
The Palm Beach board plans to meet tomorrow and Saturday to go through the objectionable ballots and, if necessary, workers would return Sunday to finish up the hand count to meet a Supreme Court imposed deadline of Sunday evening.
The Miami-Dade cancellation, at the same time, buoyed GOP spirits as the court hearing was going on.
"It is hard to overstate the significance of their decision," Bush campaign adviser Ed Gillespie said of the Miami-Dade recount. "It is now hard to see them getting the numbers they need."
Rep. John E. Sweeney, New York Republican, said it was pressure from the GOP that forced the hand of the Miami-Dade election board, which had previously voted against a recount following the Nov. 7 election.
A voters rights claim was prepared, he said, and a morning protest from Republican ballot counters was prepared after an early morning decision by the board to count only 10,600 contested ballots also had an effect.
"We really told them that we weren't going to allow them to play any more games," said Mr. Sweeney, who is from New York.
The board's early decision to stop the full hand count and focus only on the dimpled ballots was met with a demonstration by Republicans.
About two dozen banged on the door of the room where the board was meeting, shouting "Voter fraud!" and "Cheaters!" They also swarmed a Democratic lawyer, and urged the police to arrest him for stealing a ballot. It turned out the ballot was a sample.
Judge Labarga said the three-member board, all Democrats, can reject dimpled ballots only after seeking to determine the voters' intent. He said county election supervisors must reject any ballot in which they cannot discern the voter's intent.

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