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Gore Hopes for Fla. Win Turn to Dimpled Ballots

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Disappointed that Vice President Al Gore has received so few extra votes from a manual recount here, Democrats on Tuesday asked a court to order local election officials to consider more than 800 ballots that were only indented by voters, rather than poked out with a stylus.

Gore’s lawyers are due at Palm Beach County Circuit Court today to argue that the county canvassing board has disqualified too many of the so-called dimpled ballots since the hand-counting began Thursday.

Democrats fear that Gore may not be able to overtake Republican candidate George W. Bush’s unofficial 930-vote statewide lead--and win the White House--unless dimpled ballots are counted as valid.

The Democrats are seeking a court order to force the canvassing board to accept that “ballots with indentations must be counted as votes,” according to court papers. They have focused on Palm Beach County because many voters here are elderly and thus may have failed to apply enough pressure to properly punch the ballot for their candidate.

“If they throw them out, you get one result,” said F. Gregory Barnhart, a West Palm Beach attorney representing the Florida Democratic Party. “If they don’t, you get another.”

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The latest legal salvo infuriated Republicans, who argue that it is impossible to know whether an indentation represents a valid vote, a mistake or a change of heart. Democrats, they charged, are trying to reshape the counting process because they aren’t gaining enough votes.

“They are trying to move the goal posts in the middle of the game,” said Scott McClellan, a spokesman for Texas Gov. Bush.

Caught in the middle of the skirmish, the chairman of the local canvassing board was circumspect. “Dimples have reared their ugly head,” said Charles Burton, who also is a Palm Beach County judge.

Judge Jorge Labarga--who ruled on Monday that he lacked the authority to grant a new presidential election in Palm Beach County--scheduled a hearing this morning to weigh the Democrats’ demands.

Indentations and Intent of Voters

The Democrats essentially are asking Labarga to clarify a ruling he made last week when he ordered the county to consider dimpled ballots. Until then, the canvassing board automatically invalidated all such votes.

Burton, a Democrat, said he would welcome a strict standard for the sake of fairness. “If we’re going to count it, there has to be clear and convincing evidence that the voter intended to vote. What other way is there to figure out a voter’s intent?”

Gore’s attorneys separately have asked the Florida Supreme Court to set a uniform standard for ballots, including those with dimples, in canvassing board deliberations across the state. The court did not directly address the standards question, but it did cite as “particularly apt” an Illinois Supreme Court decision that urged a broad standard in assessing voter intent.

For days, Gore’s legal team has been building its case by identifying dimpled ballots that were disqualified by the Palm Beach County canvassing board--but which the Democrats believe were intended for Gore.

Florida Democratic Party attorney Dennis Newman, who is an election observer here, said Tuesday afternoon that he and his team have earmarked 557 ballots, almost all of which are contested dimpled ballots. Representatives of the Bush campaign have set aside 260 similar votes.

“We believe that they are not applying the correct standard,” Newman said. “If you can see a clear indentation that the person intended to vote, it should be counted.”

Dimple Signals Voter’s Intent

As evidence for their case, the Democrats cite a single Palm Beach County precinct, home to thousands of elderly voters, where 119 dimpled ballots were invalidated. They believe loose chads--the tiny pieces of paper a voter is supposed to poke out--built up in the voting machines and prevented weaker seniors from pressing the stylus hard enough to punch out the chads.

That would result in dimples--and it would clearly indicate a voter’s intent, Newman said.

“People intended to vote,” he said. “They marked it. But it didn’t get through. It is boiling down to what people intended.”

Although the figures are not yet official, Gore has gained 266 votes to date from manual recounts underway in three heavily Democratic South Florida counties.

Gore has gained 106 votes in Broward County, which is expected to finish its hand count today. Gore also has added 157 votes in early returns from Miami-Dade County, with final results of its recount not expected for at least another week.

Palm Beach County, which is peppered with minority and senior communities, has been the biggest disappointment for the Gore camp. So far, he has gained only three votes, with results from 104 of 637 precincts.

One reason, Democrats argue, is that the canvassing board has thrown out most--but not all--of the dimpled ballots.

One ballot, for example, had circular pen marks next to Gore’s name and other candidates. But the chad wasn’t punched out since the voter apparently used a pen instead of the ballot stylus. The chad was merely pressed in, or dimpled.

That vote counted for Gore, Burton said, because the voter’s intent was clear.

But Burton cited dozens of cases of voters who left a dimple beside a presidential candidate’s name, but punched out chads for other offices. Those presidential votes did not count, he said, because it was impossible to tell whether the voter failed in an effort to poke out the presidential chad or simply decided at the last second not to vote for any of the candidates.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

When Ballots Count

Three Florida counties use similar guidelines to count ballots, but how they apply those guidelines varies. At issue is the counting of chads--the bits of paper that are meant to fall out when a ballot is punched through.

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Each County’s Policy on Tossups

Broward: The canvassing board has accepted many such ballots but has rejected some too.

Miami-Dade: The canvassing board has been more liberal than Broward in accepting such ballots.

Palm Beach: The canvassing board inspects such ballots but has rejected most of them.

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Sources: Palm Beach County (Fla.) Canvassing Board, Associated Press, staff reports


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