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Sluggish Pace, Bickering Test Recounters' Tempers

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Fla. Supreme Court Order
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_____Florida Recount_____
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The Transition
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The Court

Election Day is just the beginning. Keep up with Al Kamen's In the Loop, Steve Barr's Federal Diary and news from The Post's Federal Page.

By George Lardner Jr. and Serge F. Kovaleski
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 18, 2000; Page A01

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., Nov. 17-The county canvassing board was slogging through a pile of absentee ballots today when it found problems with one military vote and decided not to count it.

A Republican lawyer observing the process objected indignantly to disenfranchising "our military men overseas."

"We'll file a protest and arrange for violins," replied Judge Charles E. Burton, the beleaguered chairman of the canvassing board.

At another point, when one of the lawyers objected to an overseas ballot even before he had looked at it, an exasperated Burton exclaimed to his television audience: "Can anyone outside wonder why this board has been bogged down in the process of counting ballots?"

So it went in a bleak building among the palm trees here, and 41 miles to the south in Broward County, as the manual recount entered a period of chad-by-chad trench warfare. And so it promised to go in Miami-Dade County, which suddenly reversed itself today and announced it would embark on the gargantuan task of reviewing by hand all 650,000 ballots cast in the county 10 long days ago.

The going was even slower than expected.

In Palm Beach, bogged down by a tide of objections they dismissed as groundless, officials said today they had finished recounting and reviewing two out of 531 precincts after 16 hours of work.

The result as of midafternoon: a net gain of one vote for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

On the third day of hand-counting in Broward, Gore logged a net gain of 34 votes with 115 of the heavily Democratic county's 609 precincts tallied by hand.

Voicing his frustrations, Burton said 32,000 punch-card ballots from 39 precincts had been counted by about 3 p.m. today, but the board still had to make its way through large stacks of ballots identified by one side or another as "questionable" before tallying the results.

Because of the sluggish pace, Burton said he doubted that the laborious manual recount of 462,657 votes could be completed in the six days officials had estimated.

"I'm hoping we can pick up some speed," he said at a news conference. At the board's request, he said, lead lawyers for Bush and Vice President Gore assigned to the recount had "agreed to talk to their people about making more realistic objections."

Each two-member team of election counters works with a Democratic and a Republican observer looking over its shoulders in a large, tightly guarded amphitheater at the Palm Beach County Emergency Operations Center. A ballot must be set aside as questionable, to be reviewed by the canvassing board, if one of the observers or vote counters challenges it.

In one of the precincts the board managed to finish, Burton said, the counting teams had set aside 263 ballots as questionable. But in the final review, lawyers for Bush and Gore objected to counting only two. The final result for this precinct showed 770 votes for Gore and 606 for Bush-no change from last week's machine count.

A lawyer for the Gore camp, Mark White, told reporters that Republican observers Thursday night were challenging about one of every five ballots as "part of a deliberate process to delay this recount."

Burton, however, said "it's both sides" who have been making the challenges. "It's been the most frustrating thing," he said. "Every time someone coughs or sneezes, someone files a lawsuit."

The truth of that assertion was on display in Broward County today, with one court hearing requested by Democrats over the correct standard for chad assessment, and another on a GOP "emergency" request to halt the counting entirely.

Attorneys for the Gore campaign scored a subtle but potentially major victory this afternoon after they asked Circuit Judge John A. Miller to require the Broward canvassing board to adopt more inclusive criteria in its manual recount of 588,000 votes.

Although the canvassing board has not been designating a vote to either candidate unless two or more corners of a chad are detached from a ballot, Democrats asked Miller to rule that the "per se exclusion" of "pregnant chads, dimple and other indented but unperforated ballots is in violation of Florida law." Sources involved in the Broward recount said Gore stands to pick up potentially several hundred votes, should the canvassing board adopt the broader criteria.

William R. Scherer, a lawyer for the Republicans, vehemently objected to the Democrats' request, arguing his legal team had been notified of the hearing only 29 minutes earlier and decrying Democrats' "ambush" tactics.

Miller said he would hold off ruling while the Florida Supreme Court took up the election mess Monday. But he also sent a pointed message to the canvassing board by saying from the bench, "I would like to think that the canvassing board knows the law [and] is not limiting itself to one or two criteria."

That triggered an angry response from Scherer, who loudly protested, "That is a ruling! That is a ruling! You cannot do that!"

The Broward canvassing board could hold a vote as early as Saturday on whether to institute broader standards for accessing ballots in the recount.

Also today at the Broward County Emergency Operations Center, where the recount is taking place, Republicans said that on Thursday night they found about 200 chads that had been discarded on the floor. They said that these chads, and an additional 78 discovered Wednesday night, were further evidence that the recounting is unreliable because the ballots are being mishandled.

Meanwhile, in Palm Beach, Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga held a lengthy hearing this morning on petitions from dissatisfied Democratic voters who want him to order a new presidential election in the county because of confusion over its "butterfly" ballot that many say led them to vote for Pat Buchanan instead of Gore.

Labarga seemed skeptical of his authority to take such a drastic step, but said he would not rule until Monday.

Special correspondent Catharine Skipp contributed to this report.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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