Volusia still in the spotlight

As the county begins its painstaking recount by hand, local officials prepare a suit to ask for more time to count.

By Anthony York

Published November 12, 2000 10:00PM (EST)

November Sundays in Florida are usually reserved for God and football, but with the fate of the presidential election still hanging in the balance, both have taken a back seat to politics.

While Volusia County prepared to file a lawsuit against the secretary of state asking for more time to count ballots, inside the county government building, dozens of tables were set up end to end, piled high with stacks of ballots.

Under the watchful eyes of both Democratic and Republican observers, county officials here began counting off presidential votes, one at a time. A small group of Bush supporters waved signs and chanted outside the building, but most of the people who were milling around the plaza Saturday were busy inside watching county workers count ballots.

Sunday's events were just the latest in what has been a five-day headache for the entire country. On Election Night there was a glitch in the county's ballot-counting software that gave a Socialist Party candidate more than 9,000 votes, while Vice President Al Gore had minus 16,000. Those numbers were sent out over the Internet, picked up by local newspapers and subsequently reported by major networks on Election Night. Then, a ballot bag emerged that had been forgotten in a poll worker's trunk.

Even as they tried to put questions about the integrity of their votes to rest by agreeing to a recount by hand, Volusia stumbled once again. On Friday, as the county unlocked vaults to retrieve the ballots, live television cameras rolled as three ballot bags emerged from the vaults without their tamper-proof seals intact.

But as the recount goes on, county spokesman Dave Byron is convinced that the recount will not produce significantly different results than the original Tuesday night count. For one thing, here in Volusia, there is no talk of swinging doors, pregnant nipples or hanging chads. All of the headaches now being experienced farther south in Palm Beach County are moot here. That's because Volusia uses optical-scan ballots, which work in a similar way to a standardized test form, such as the SAT.

To demonstrate just how hard it would be to vote incorrectly in Volusia, county officials wheeled a voting machine into the makeshift press tent set up on the lawn outside the county building Sunday. If a bubble on the sheet was not filled in correctly, the machine would reject the ballot on the spot. If it was done properly, then it was tabulated immediately. Write-ins were filed separately thanks to an internal sorting chip in the ballot machines.

By contrast, punch ballots are fraught with potential problems. If the perforated circle, know as a chad, is not completely punched through, ballot-counting machines will not read that vote, even if it was clearly intended for one candidate. Vote counters in Palm Beach have been given specific instructions to count the so-called hanging chads, or swinging doors (depending on how many of the perforated edges have actually come free) as they re-tally votes by hand in that county.

So here in Volusia, Byron believes there will be fewer questions regarding voter intent left to county hand counters to interpret. Those questions are currently the centerpiece of the Bush campaign's objections to the hand count.

"Again, I'm confident that this hand count will produce a similar result to the one we received on Election Night." But in a presidential race currently hinging on 200 or so votes, there's a big difference between similar and exact.

Nevertheless, Volusia County employees Sunday began the arduous task of recounting the county's 184,019 ballots by hand, even as the county government is expected to file a lawsuit in state Circuit Court in Tallahassee Monday morning asking for more time.

"The Volusia County Canvassing Board authorized the filing of a lawsuit tomorrow against the Florida secretary of state seeking an injunction asking for an extension of the 5 p.m. deadline to file certified election results in Tallahassee," said county spokesman Byron. "It's questionable as to what discretionary authority the secretary of state has to arbitrarily extend the deadline."

According to Florida state law, every county must deliver its results to the secretary of state's office by 5 p.m. Tuesday. Failure to get those results in could lead to all of the county's ballots being disallowed.

Gore carried Volusia County on Election Day by 15,000 votes. After a tabulation of the write-in ballots finished late yesterday, the vice president picked up a net gain of five votes, receiving six total additional votes, while George W. Bush received one.

Byron said the suit is being filed as a precautionary measure in case Volusia does not complete its hand count in time. "Obviously at this point, to have begun the manual recount and to find ourselves Tuesday without having the recount completed really leaves us in a very difficult position," said Byron. "So filing the lawsuit seems like the thing to do. That's not to say that we don't think we're going to complete by 5 on Tuesday. But we'd like to create a baseball game out of this, even if it has to go into extra innings, as opposed to a basketball game where time runs out."

If the injunction request is denied in court, Byron said, it is possible that the original Volusia results will be sent to Tallahassee, and this hand count will be for naught.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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2000 Elections