Gore troops storm Florida

Democratic bigwigs' visit to the Sunshine State has left them "deeply troubled," as they prepare for a legal battle.

Published November 9, 2000 10:56PM (EST)

Here they come, the Democratic big guns, into the Florida Senate office building. In addition to the recount going on across the capital promenade, the Democrats are demanding that the ballots in four Florida counties -- Broward, Dade, Palm Beach and Volusia -- be recounted by hand.

The reasons for the demand is different for each county. In Broward and Dade counties, Democrats were told by their canvassers at the different polling sites that they believed there was "undervoting"; meaning that more people voted than the total would represent. In Palm Beach, there was the much-reported confusion over which hole to punch, and therefore "overvoting"; voters voted for more than one candidate and their ballots (reportedly 19,000) were discarded. Lastly, in Volusia County, there were reports that on Election Night the vote tally on the county's Web site kept switching back and forth dramatically. Then, after the election, the Socialist Party candidate was credited with 9,000 votes, but after the recount, his tally dropped to just eight votes.

The Democrats are led by Bill Daley, the chairman of Vice President Al Gore's campaign. Solid, stolid and bald, but thinner than you'd expect, Daley looks like he's ready to tackle anyone at a moment's notice. He resigned as secretary of commerce earlier this year to serve as his fickle candidate's third campaign manager in just one campaign. Daley was raised on hardscrabble Chicago politics; his father, former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, is said to have helped JFK swipe the 1960 presidential contest from then-V.P. Richard Nixon.

Then there's the slight former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who led the V.P. search for Bill Clinton, picking Gore, putting him, ultimately, into this confounding spot. Christopher looks like he's melting into his expensive gray pinstripe suit. When he talks, he's barely audible. How did this man get so powerful?

Their ace-in-the-hole -- they hope, they pray -- is Kendall Coffey, a lawyer from Coffey, Diaz and O'Naghton, a Miami law firm. Coffey has been retained by "the Gore Campaign Recount Committee" to begin to pick apart what looks to be a slimmer than slim state victory -- and thus a presidential electoral triumph -- by Gov. George W. Bush. Coffey looks at Tuesday night's election and he sees things he doesn't like, things he thinks are illegal: votes, ballots and procedures that he intends to challenge. That's what he's paid to do, to see these things. And he's no stranger to desperate situations and lost causes in Florida, having represented Elián González's Miami relatives.

The recount is patiently being conducted across the capital promenade, but here in the Senate hearing room the Democratic big guns are preparing for legal challenges should the recount go Bush's way. No one will specify exactly what form such a legal challenge would take, however.

"Secretary Christopher and I have been in Florida now for over 20 hours," Daley says. "We're here to report that what we have learned has left us deeply troubled."

Daley specifically cites the reports of the voters in Palm Beach County who were apparently confused about the county's new "butterfly ballots." These were initiated by a Democrat, Theresa LePore, the Palm Beach supervisor of elections, who thought she was doing good for her county's substantial senior population by making the names on the ballots larger and thus more legible.

Apparently all LePore did was confuse a bunch of these voters, placing the hole they could punch for Gore too close to a hole they could punch for Pat Buchanan -- a man many of the Jewish voters in the area find repugnant. Nineteen thousand of these ballots were thrown out, many of them because holes were punched for more than one candidate. Buchanan scored 3,704 votes in Palm Beach County -- substantially more than in any county in the state.

"More than 20,000 voters in Palm Beach County who thought they were voting for Al Gore had their votes counted for Pat Buchanan or not counted at all," Daley says. He calls this "disenfranchisement." He calls the Buchanan votes "implausible. I'm told even Mr. Buchanan recognizes that much," Daley says, referring to a comment Buchanan made earlier on the "Today" show: "When I took one look at that ballot on Election Night ... it's very easy for me to see how someone could have voted for me in the belief they voted for Al Gore."

Only 561 votes went for Buchanan in Dade County, which is much larger than Palm Beach County. In Broward County, Buchanan only scored 789 votes.

"Those numbers cry out for justice," says Coffey.

Daley repeats the Gore talking points that are -- at least as it relates to the Electoral College -- irrelevant.

"More than 100 million Americans voted on Tuesday and more voted for Al Gore than Governor Bush," Daley says. As we all know by now, both presidents Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876 and Benjamin Harrison in 1888 were elected as it appears Bush may have been -- scoring the electoral majority from key states, but actually having more American voters pull the lever for his opponent.

The point seems to underline the argument that Gore, as the popular vote winner, should be afforded every benefit of the doubt in the Sunshine State.

"Here in Florida it also seems very likely that more voters went to the polls believing that they were voting for Al Gore than for George Bush," Daley says. "If the will of the people is to prevail, Al Gore should be awarded the victory of Florida and be our next president."

But electoral victories are not built upon "the will of the people." They are built upon 270 electoral votes garnered from enough states where a plurality of voters cast their ballot -- competently -- for a particular candidate. In 1996, more than 14,000 Palm Beach County residents also had their ballots thrown out.

Still, Palm Beach County Commissioner Carol Roberts has told reporters that 19,000 tossed-out ballots "is a high number." A local Florida counsel working with the Democratic Party of Florida, the DNC and the Gore campaign says that if butterfly ballots were thrown out in '96, then "all the more reason that they shouldn't have been used this year."

When Christopher steps to the microphone to speak, reporters lean forward with their microphones and tape recorders, cupping their ears.

"We've come to believe that there are serious and substantial irregularities resolving from the ballot used only in one county," Christopher says. "That ballot was confusing and illegal," he says, adding that "arriving out of this is the need for redress in order to make sure that the will of the people can be properly honored in this situation."

Daley tries to cast this as not a tough break for Gore, but for the voters. "Technicalities should not determine the president of the United States," Daley says. "The will of the people should."

Such rhetoric might be fine for the cameras, but this mess isn't going to be decided in the court of public opinion. It will be judges and county commissioners and election supervisors.

That's why Coffey's here.

"That ballot is completely illegal," Coffey says of the Palm Beach butterfly ballot. "It confused voters. It led to an unprecedented number of voters -- many of whom are elderly, who waited for hours -- to have their votes disqualified because it was very hard looking at it to figure out exactly what to do."

"The law requires a simple linear listing so that the boxes are punched in the same order and you don't have this massive confusion," Coffey says. "Florida election law is very clear."

Statute section 101.151, subparagraph part (3) (a) states that "Beneath the caption and preceding the names of candidates shall be the following words: 'To vote for a candidate whose name is printed on the ballot, place a cross (X) mark in the blank space at the right of the name of the candidate for whom you desire to vote.'" That's clearly not what happened in Palm Beach County. But is it enough?

Democratic aides pass out copies of an alert LePore sent out to Dade County election supervisors Tuesday, informing them that voters were confused with the butterfly ballots. It reads:


That came after an official with the Democratic National Committee in Florida faxed LePore a letter at 11:24 a.m. Election Day saying, "Apparently certain presidential ballots in several precincts in Palm Beach County are quite confusing ... You should immediately instruct all deputy supervisors and other officials at these precincts that they should advise all electors (and post a written advisory) that the ballots that the presidential race list is two pages long and that the electors should only vote for one presidential candidate. "

Daley alludes to other possible legal challenges. "We're still collecting accounts of other irregularities, voter intimidation and other oddities, that if substantiated ... they, too, will become part of legal actions."

The Bush campaign has sent former Secretary of State James Baker III down here to represent them. "We'll see if there's some way we can cooperate with them," Christopher says feebly. "I must say, the cooperation cannot extend to the point of our giving up justified legal challenges that are absolutely necessary to ensure the fairness of the process."

Daley says that the Bush campaign has "blithely dismissed the disenfranchisement of thousands of Floridians as being the usual Florida mistakes made in elections." True enough. The Bushies want this over. "It's going to be resolved in a quick way," Bush said to reporters on Wednesday.

"I have not seen anything that concerned me after review," said Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, younger brother of the GOP nominee.

In Thursday newspapers, the Bush campaign had leaked the names of Cabinet appointments -- most notably Gen. Colin Powell as secretary of state.

They want this thing to be over with.


"We expect the automatic recount that is now underway in Florida will confirm" the Bush victory, Bush communications director Karen Hughes said Wednesday in a written statement. "We also expect that once this recount is complete, the Vice President will respect the will of the people of Florida."

But Daley says that the will of the people has nothing to do with Bush's actions.

"They're trying to presumptively crown themselves the victors. To try to put in place a transition runs the risk of dividing the American people and creating a sense of confusion," Daley says. "Let the legal system run its course. Let the true and accurate will of the people prevail.

"And if, at the end of the process, George Bush is the victor we will honor and obviously respect the results."

And with that, Daley, Christopher and Coffey walk out of the room.

By Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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Al Gore George W. Bush Jeb Bush