Palm Beach soldiers on

With some harsh words for Katherine Harris, Palm Beach continues their recount as the deadline passes

Published November 26, 2000 10:18PM (EST)

At 4:30 p.m. EST on Sunday after two weeks of 20-hour days, Palm Beach County canvassing board chairman Judge Charles Burton announces that their hand recount would not be completed by the 5 p.m. deadline. So even though the board only has 800 to 1,000 ballots left to hand recount -- out of a total of 461,988 -- he says that such a task will take another two hours or so. Since they only have half an hour left, he calls it quits.

They had asked for an extension until Monday at 9 a.m. EST, but Secretary of State Katherine Harris said that she didn't have the legal discretion to allow such an extension "in accordance with the explicit terms of the decision of the Florida Supreme Court," according to her rejection letter which Burton reads to us.

"So the secretary of state has decided to shut us down with approximately two hours and a half left to go," Burton says, a bitter edge to his voice. "Unfortunately, at this time we have no other choice but to shut down. The supervisor of elections" -- Theresa LePore -- "has to hurriedly gather all the paperwork and prepare all the returns we have. We certainly don't want to get any in at 5:01."

But scarcely five minutes later, Burton comes back into the hearing room, here at the Palm Beach Emergency Operation Center, and in a symbol of the mercurial nature of this ever-evolving second-by-second story, says that they'll continue with the last few hours of work after the deadline passes.

"We are going to send a report to the secretary of state as to the returns that we have," Burton says. "And this board has decided that we are going to remain here and finish the recount. And we are going to send whatever figures we have to the secretary of state and it will be up to her whether or not she decides to accept those."

Miami attorney Mark Wallace, representing the Bush team, notes the board's hard work, objects to its self-extension of the deadline and graciously says that his team will remain to observe for the rest of the process.

Before he re-commences with the re-recount (but first manual tabulation) of the remaining thousand or so disputed Palm Beach County ballots -- knowing full well that Harris may not accept late updates to the already updated vote tallies -- Burton approaches the media to offer us his thoughts.

How many new votes are there? What will the new numbers that they've faxed to Harris -- the totals from the first machine recount, plus the new ones absent approximately 50 precincts -- reveal?

"Maybe a couple hundred votes," he says.

For Vice President Al Gore?

He nods.

Why are they continuing the counting, despite the fact that Harris has made it crystal clear that she won't accept these new numbers?

"Why not?" he says, casually. "We all want to finish the job."

Does he blame the fact that this has taken longer than he thought it might on the GOP lawyers objecting?

"We agree, we disagree, we agree to disagree," he says. "Both sides were extremely cooperative." He says that spending last Wednesday in the 15th Judicial Circuit court, where Judge Jorge Labarga ultimately gave the board no guidance on which "chad" was kosher, was time wasted. "We spent all day in court when we could've been working," he says.

A reporter asks him a leading question about Harris, trying to get him to slam her.

"Next question," he says.

Was there a moment when he realized that they weren't going to make the deadline? asks a reporter seeking drama.

No, Burton says. "As the afternoon went on, we realized we weren't going to make it."

Why did he ask Harris for an extension?

"Given what this experience has been, I was hopeful they'd say 'Fine,'" he says, pointing out how hard they've all worked. He says he spoke with Elections Supervisor Clay Roberts to plead his case, but was shot down.

He says that his Democratic critics, who say that the board has been using excessively strict dimple standards, are wrong. "You simply can't count every dimple on a ballot," he says. "We didn't count every ding on a ballot card."

On the other hand, he adds, "we certainly came across an awful lot of ballots that were not counted by the machine."

Any ramifications from it all, other than who will be president?

"I'm sure every state's going to revisit its election laws," he says. And then he leaves and goes back to counting.

It's been a long day for everyone, especially the members of the canvassing board. LePore is wearing the same white sweater that she had on Saturday. County Commissioner Carol Roberts is dressed in the same multi-colored ensemble she was sporting. Burton apparently brought a change of clothes, because he has switched from the aqua golf shirt he once wore into a yellow oxford with a tie.

The three members of the Palm Beach County canvassing board have been here recounting the last batch of approximately 14,500 "questionable" ballots for more than 31 hours, but the question of this hour is: Will it be enough?

At 1 p.m. EST, the raison d'etre of Burton's shirt and tie is made clearer when he strides before the assemblage of cameras and announces that the canvassing board is faxing Secretary of State Katherine Harris a request for a deadline extension from 5 p.m. Sunday to 9 a.m. Monday.

After all, Burton's letter states, the task of reviewing each of the ballots has "creat(ed) an extraordinary and unprecedented challenge for the Canvassing Board."

"We know you are interested in counting all votes as accurately as possible," Burton's letter reads, noting that he and his colleagues are "committed to reviewing each and every one of these 'questionable' ballots as quickly as humanly possible, including working through this evening. We do not believe this extension would prejudice the State in any way, in light of the Florida Supreme Court's opinion" -- a reference to the court's opinion, issued last week, that enacted the Sunday deadline with the caveat that the Monday morning deadline could stand in its place if Harris didn't want to open her office on Sunday.

Word comes back quickly that Harris -- whose office is decidedly open -- doesn't feel that she has the discretion to extend the deadline.

Inside, the three keep counting, under the watchful eyes of some higher-profile supporters of Gov. George W. Bush than just the regular observers they've been dealing with. Namely, Republican Muckety-Mucks: Gov. Jim Gilmore of Virginia, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, and Gov. Bill Janklow of South Dakota.

Also present is one of the self-described "volunteers" from Saturday's demonstrations outside the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale. Faithful readers might recall the blonde, bespectacled 30ish political operative in the "Jeb" oxford, distributing free T-shirts to the excitable pro-Bush crowd. He refused to give his name or say who was paying for the T-shirts, which accuse Vice President Gore of "stealing" the election and refer to the hand recount as a "GOREY mess."

"I'm just a volunteer," he said.

Well, not really. He's Phil Muster, a paid staffer on the Bush political team, and today he's charged with escorting Gilmore around the Emergency Operations Center where the hand recount may be finishing up.

Why do the Bushies refuse to tell the truth about their role here? They're certainly legally allowed to hand out free T-shirts, or to protest peacefully.

I guess they don't want to acknowledge that at the so-called "spontaneous" demonstrations, they're the ones beating the drums -- literally in the case of Bush advance staffer Todd Beyer, who beat a drum to anti-Gore chants on the streets of Fort Lauderdale on Saturday.

Paid members of the Bush campaign excite the partisan crowds with their overheated rhetoric, hand out free T-shirts with incendiary slogans and otherwise engage in various under-the-radar shenanigans that worked so effectively for Bush in his South Carolina primary campaign against Arizona Sen. John McCain. The tactics are legal, but hardly statesmanlike. Within the laughable claims that all the Bush staffers are just "volunteers" lies, apparently, Bush's plausible deniability.

Rep. Peter Deutsch, D-Fla., walks in and sits across the aisle from Hutchison, Janklow and Gilmore. No pleasantries are exchanged. No friendly acknowledging glances. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., also wanders in. Then he wanders out. Soon Rep. Corinne Brown, D-Fla., joins Deutsch.

Will they finish in time? And even so, will there be enough votes for Gore in the chad? If not, it sure feels like the beginning of the end for Gore, despite the saber-rattling one hears from his surrogates and legal team.

The last hard numbers given to the public came at 6:40 a.m., after a review of precinct 17 revealed an additional Bush vote and 19 additional Gore votes.

The Bush side looks at the process and sees the invention of Gore votes by Democrats. Meanwhile, the Gore legal team has already declared its intentions to contest the Palm Beach numbers, judging the canvassing board -- which consists entirely of Democrats -- to have been too sparing in their judgments of when a dimpled chad constitutes a vote.

"Hey hey! Ho ho! Al Gore has got to go!" chant the pro-Bush protesters outside the Emergency Operation Center. "Thou shalt not steal," reads on sign.

"Who let the chads out? Who? Who? Gore Did!" reads another popular printed sign.

A smattering of pro-Gore protesters is here as well. "Bush hates all minorities," reads a sign from their number.

"One-ninety-three C," Burton says inside.

"Who's got 193-C?" Roberts asks.

As I walk from my car to the Emergency Operations Center, I pass a woman who has camped out on the sidewalk, waving a Bush-Cheney sign for the motorists who pass by. I ask her how she's doing.

"Good," she says. "Who are you with?"

"," I reply.

"Oh," she says. "You're one of those."

By Jake Tapper

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

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2000 Elections