How manual recounts helped Bush

In some Florida counties, election officials voluntarily hand-counted ballots that machines couldn't read -- exactly what Gore wants in Miami-Dade -- and the governor came out ahead.

By Anthony York

Published November 29, 2000 12:48AM (EST)

For days Vice President Al Gore has focused on 10,000-plus ballots from Miami-Dade County that couldn't be counted by machine, insisting those are votes that haven't yet been counted -- and the implication is that many of those votes are his. The Bush campaign has struck back harshly, accusing Gore of demanding recount after recount until he gets results he likes.

Though the vice president's message has been muddled, the facts support Gore's claim that ballots in Miami-Dade County have not been counted as thoroughly as ballots were in certain other parts of the state. In at least four other Florida counties, election officials took it upon themselves to manually count ballots that could not be read by machine, and the result of those impromptu manual recounts was a net 185-vote gain for Gov. George W. Bush.

The first statewide recount was triggered automatically because the margin between Bush and Gore was within one half of 1 percent. Florida law allows canvassing boards wide discretion on how to handle those state-mandated recounts, and the methods used varied widely. Some counties simply reran their computerized memory cards in their electronic vote-counting machines, while others undertook full, manual recounts.

In Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, where the Gore campaign demanded manual recounts, attention focused on the high number of ballots that did not appear to record a vote for president. In many cases, the canvassing boards were able to count a vote for one candidate or another that the machines could not read. Broward and Palm Beach went ahead with a hand count of these so-called "undervotes," which yielded hundreds of new votes for Gore. But while the Miami-Dade board seemed poised to inspect those unreadable ballots by hand, members abruptly halted those plans last Wednesday after boisterous Republican protests.

Now a pillar of Gore's strategy to contest the certified Florida election results is his allegation that those 10,000 votes were never counted. And while the Bush camp scoffs at the charge, it's clear that other counties did exactly what Gore is asking for in Miami-Dade -- but on their own, without a request from either candidate.

In Republican Seminole County -- where local Democrats are suing because Republican election officials allowed GOP party volunteers to correct absentee ballot applications that had been filled out improperly -- the canvassing board decided to manually examine unreadable ballots during the county's electronic recount. Seminole's recount yielded an additional 98 votes for Bush.

A similar procedure was followed in Polk County, where a partial manual recount resulted in Gore losing 90 votes that had apparently been counted twice. Canvassing board member Bruce Parker classified his county's actions as "a mini hand count."

In Taylor County, where Bush picked up four votes, Supervisor of Elections Molly Lilliot said all ballots were re-fed through the tabulating machine for the recount. "All ballots kicked out were examined individually by the canvassing board," she said.

"We ran all the ballots back through the machine," said Carol Tolle, supervisor of elections in Hamilton County. "Every time you had an overvote or undervote, we inspected it. If we could determine the intent of the voter, we counted those votes." In Hamilton, Gore ended up picking up seven votes.

Bush campaign spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said that under Florida law, the canvassing boards have discretion as to whether or not to inspect unreadable ballots by hand. Gore's cries about Miami undervotes, she said, were just more attempts by Gore to "continually try to change the rules in the middle of the game. The ballots were inspected by hand in some cases but not all, and under Florida law it's the canvassing board's decision legally. It's our belief that these votes have been counted."

But Gore spokesman Chris Lehane says the vice president simply wants the same attention paid to ballots in Miami-Dade as was given to ballots in other counties. And, he added, most of the counties that did conduct partial manual recounts used a more reliable optical scan system of voting, while voters in Miami-Dade used the infamous punch-card ballots, which yield many more errors than the OptiScan system.

"Keep in mind, punch cards are used in poorer areas. Most of these other ballots were optical ones where the reliability was much, much higher. And in poorer areas, you have bad machines or flawed ballots. We think we have a pretty clear and compelling argument."

Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes remains unmoved by that argument, continuing the GOP full-court press urging Gore to give up. "Earlier this afternoon, Vice President Gore made some additional comments about his challenge to the outcome of the election in Florida," she said. "Having failed to make his case with the American people last night, he apparently felt the need to restate his arguments. The vice president said today that he wants this process to arrive at a fair, expeditious and truly democratic conclusion. As people across America are realizing, it already has."

But whether or not they receive a manual count of those 11,000 Miami ballots, the fact remains that other counties did exactly what the Gore campaign is asking Miami to do, and Hughes' boss benefited.

Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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2000 Elections Al Gore George W. Bush