The Miami Herald wrote a follow-up to their original story on the disputed Florida 2000 recount.
Recounts could have given Gore the edge
Broward, Palm Beach checked
BY SHARI RUDAVSKY AND BETH REINHARD [email protected]
Broward and Palm Beach canvassing boards, although besieged by Republican claims that they used lax standards to award votes to Al Gore, could have credited hundreds more ballots to the Democrat if they had counted every dimple, pinprick and hanging chad as a vote, a review of ballots in both counties shows.
In Broward, where the official hand recount added 567 votes to Gore's county lead over Bush, a Herald-sponsored ballot review found that Gore's margin could have been 1,475, if every mark had been counted as a valid vote. In Palm Beach, where the official hand recount added a net gain of 174 votes to Gore's tally, the Herald-sponsored review found a potential Gore net gain of 1,081.
``It's hard to believe that the canvassing boards could have counted even more votes,'' said Broward Republican Party Chairman George LeMieux. ``It was our contention all along that the canvassing board was being extremely loose in their standards.'' The review also revealed that the canvassing boards in both counties had difficulty maintaining uniform standards of judging ballots throughout a process that involved scores of people, hundreds of thousands of ballots, and intense deadline pressure.
Among the ballots examined in Broward and Palm Beach by The Herald and auditors from BDO Seidman, LLP, were hundreds of dimpled ballots credited to no candidate that were virtually identical to scores of dimpled ballots awarded to Bush or Gore. Canvassing board members said they did the best they could to discern voter intent fairly. ``We didn't make the Democrats happy, we didn't make the Republicans happy, so I think we did something right,'' said Carol Roberts, a Democratic county commissioner who served on the Palm Beach canvassing board. Suzanne Gunzburger, a Democratic county commissioner on the Broward board who was accused of favoring Gore, said, ``We represented the will of the voter to the best of our ability. I feel comfortable with the job we did.''
The review, sponsored by The Herald, its parent company Knight Ridder and USA Today, examined 16,669 ballots in the two counties as part of a statewide review to determine the possible outcome of a Florida Supreme Court order that undervote ballots throughout the state be counted, a ruling later blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Florida court's order exempted Palm Beach, Broward, Volusia and 139 precincts of Miami-Dade, where canvassing boards had already reviewed ballots. The results of those counties were not included when The Herald computed that the Florida court's order probably would have resulted in Bush still being declared the winner. But viewing the Palm Beach and Broward ballots, while not illuminating the potential outcome of the state court order, did provide an opportunity to assess the actions of the canvassing boards in their pressured manual counting of all ballots.
Some conclusions: * Had the Broward and Palm Beach canvassing boards used the loosest standard in judging ballots and finished the recount by the court-set deadline -- which Palm Beach did not meet -- Gore almost certainly would have won. He might have gained 2,022 votes in the two counties when Bush's state lead was only 930.
And that tally may be conservative because it excludes the cleanly punched ballots in Broward, 252 Bush votes and 786 Gore votes. Broward election officials say they cannot be certain that cleanly punched ballots weren't also read during the machine count.
U.S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Pembroke Pines, a constant presence at the Broward recount, argued that every ballot mark was made deliberately by a voter indicating a candidate. All impressions should have counted, catapulting Gore over the top.
``The reality is that the canvassing board did not use a liberal standard and did not use the correct standard,'' Deustch said. ``Had they used the correct standard, Al Gore would be president.'' *
Both political parties adopted strategies in Palm Beach and Broward that turned out to favor their candidates. Republicans correctly anticipated that a lenient standard would benefit Gore in those two counties and fought strenuously against it. Democrats fought unsuccessfully for including more ballots as valid votes. *
Consistency was hard to come by. Piles of dimpled ballots never made it to the canvassing boards for scrutiny because elections workers and observers agreed among themselves that they contained no valid votes. The canvassing boards only scrutinized ballots when teams of two election workers and two representatives of the parties did not agree.
``If we missed that many, I'll have to go kill some people,'' said Dennis Newman, a Boston attorney who represented the Democratic Party in Palm Beach. ``That depresses me. Our instructions were very clear. When in doubt, question it or challenge it if you see anything.''
Broward and Palm Beach kicked off their countywide manual recounts with basically the same benchmark for judging a ballot: the bit of paper the voter expels from the punch-card ballot, the chad, had to be detached by at least two corners to count as a vote. But as the recount battle went to court again and again, and the canvassing board members saw dimpled ballot after dimpled ballot, the basis for judging a vote evolved.
In both counties, board members started looking at the whole ballot rather than just the presidential chad in an effort to determine voter intent. In Palm Beach, the canvassing board counted dimples as votes if the rest of the ballot bore similar marks instead of clean punches.
``Generally there had to be some pattern that this was how the person voted,'' said Judge Charles Burton, the chairman of the Palm Beach board. ``Out of 22 votes if you just had two little dings, we wouldn't necessarily count that.''
Broward canvassing board members Robert W. Lee and Gunzburger tended to view a dimple as a vote if there were other marks on the ballot for candidates of the same party. Lee, a Democrat and county court judge, even made a list showing which punch-card numbers corresponded to Democrats and which ones corresponded to Republicans. A quick glance at the list and the ballot would show whether the voter appeared to choose a straight ticket.
``There had to be a pattern of two or three dimples in the Democratic field for me to feel comfortable to count a dimple for Gore,'' Lee said. ``That's the way I interpreted the law.'' Lee's rationale: Many people vote along party lines.
Republicans and some election law experts strongly objected to that standard. Daniel Lowenstein, a UCLA law professor and an expert on elections law, called the voting pattern standard ``profoundly wrong.'' ``If you're going to count marks like that, you're surely going to count some significant number of votes that were not intended,'' he said. If people voted straight-party tickets then Democratic congressional candidate Elaine Bloom should have defeated Republican U.S. Rep. Clay Shaw (she didn't), and Republican Property Appraiser William Markham would have lost (he didn't).
Gunzburger conceded that some voters cross party lines but said, ``We had to come up with a standard, and this is the standard we chose.'' Maintaining even an arguably flawed standard, however, proved impossible. The Herald compared similarly dimpled ballots to see if the pattern held up. While many dimpled ballots that were counted as votes did show a pattern of other dimples, others assigned to candidates did not.
In the week and a half of recounting, boards often worked 14-hour-plus days, tediously inspecting ballots. In Broward, the board did not even break for Thanksgiving. The Palm Beach canvassing board worked non-stop before the recount deadline from 8 a.m. Saturday to 7 p.m. Sunday. All of this came under intense media scrutiny. Reporters and television cameras from all over the world hovered just outside the glass-paned rooms where the canvassing boards toiled. The late hours, life-in-a fishbowl atmosphere, and overall enormity of the task ahead took a toll on board members, despite their valiant efforts.
Palm Beach had a written policy on recounts, which called for the two-corner standard and left little opportunity for partisan objections. But Democratic and Republican activists whittled away at the canvassing board's resolve. ``We blew every policy and procedure with all of that because of the demands placed upon us,'' said Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore. ``Looking back, we were trying to please everybody, we probably should have said, `This is the way it is.' ''
Adding pressure on boards was the inherent difficulty of assessing punch cards. A chad is no bigger than a freckle. A dimple to one person can be a shadow to another. ``It's like reading tea leaves. Everybody sees something different,'' said William Scherer, a Fort Lauderdale attorney who represented the Republican Party in Broward's recount.
Even canvassing board members acknowledge they could not be 100 percent consistent over the long days. ``I'm sure there's a few [ballots] in there now that if I went back and looked, I'd say these are votes, and if I went through the votes, I'd say some are not votes,'' Burton said.
The order in which ballots came before the canvassing board was another variable. If the board saw a dimpled ballot and called it for Gore, they might call the next dimpled ballot for Bush. But if a similar ballot came three hours later, it might be discarded.
``At 10 a.m. a person might be a little more conservative, and by 10 p.m they may be a little more liberal,'' said LeMieux of the Broward GOP. Multiply the boards' inconsistency times 60 -- roughly the number of election workers and partisan observers in each county who reviewed the ballots first. If they agreed, the canvassing board never saw the ballot. A ballot ruled as bearing no valid vote and not reviewed by the canvassing board had no chance to count.
Ideally, people looking at ballots would get the same training and follow it to the letter, minimizing discrepancies. But different teams behaved differently, noted Jeff Darter, informations technology manager for the Palm Beach elections office. ``There was a huge variation in their intensity, in observing or dissenting.''
Democrats in Palm Beach received clear instructions: insist that any ballot with a mark near Gore be canvassed. As the recount wore on, however, spirits and efforts flagged. ``There were less and less challenges. People were tired, too, so unless it was something glaring, they weren't challenged,'' said Kartik Krishnaiyer, assistant to the chairman of the Palm Beach Democratic Party. Krishnaiyer admits he failed to forward some ballots for canvassing in an effort to deflect GOP accusations that Democrats wanted to manufacture votes for Gore. ``There were a couple of times when I thought that I'd better just let that one go because it's going to be a hard sell,'' he said. ``Still the voter intent was clearly there.''
But others involved in the recount retort that ballot marks don't necessarily reflect voters' choices. ``If you just count a ding as a vote, you're no better off than a machine,'' said Palm Beach County Canvassing Board Chairman Burton, a Democrat. ``If you're just counting impressions, then you're really not interpreting the intent of the voter.''
While the quarrel over standards for manual recounts continues, there's one point where there is little debate. Said Brigham McCown, a lawyer who represented the Republican Party in Palm Beach: ``I think everyone's in agreement it did not work as advertised.''
Herald staff writer Geoff Dougherty contributed to this report.