GOP opens new front in ballot fight


Los Angeles Times

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Republicans launched a concerted effort Saturday to delay and discredit the hand counting of Florida’s presidential ballots, even as a tally of overseas votes widened George W. Bush’s lead to 930 votes.

But the hand counting showed Gore continuing to whittle away at Bush’s margin. The vice president netted 63 votes in the recount of 228 of Broward County’s 609 precincts, and tallying continued in Palm Beach County.

Partisans battled on multiple fronts throughout the day and into the night — lawyers in the state Supreme Court and Seminole County, Republicans and Democrats elbow-to-elbow inside overheated tabulation centers. As fingers jabbed and tempers flared, the Bush campaign worked to stir doubts about the integrity of the process.

Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, enlisted by the Bush campaign to help undermine the recount effort, asserted that paper ballots had been mislaid, mishandled and deliberately miscounted. "I think when the American people learn about these things they’re going to say, ‘What in the name of God is going on here?’ " Racicot told reporters at a news conference in Austin, Texas.

At one point, matters grew so bitter — and so ludicrous — Republicans in Broward County accused Democrats of improperly swallowing chad, the little pieces of paper that fall out when a ballot is punched. The incident "underscores that the process is running amok," said Ken Lisaius, a spokesman for the county GOP.

The Gore campaign accused Bush operatives of deliberately attempting "to politicize a process that ought to be governed by our laws."

"The difference between the two camps could not be clearer," said Chris Lehane, a Gore spokesman. "Al Gore wants a hand recount because it guarantees the will of the people will be reflected. The Bush campaign is doing everything possible to impede that from happening."

The vote count in Florida fluctuated throughout the day, but stayed within the same narrow spectrum — an infinitesimal fraction of the 6 million ballots cast on Nov. 7. Bush pulled ahead by 930 votes after the overseas absentee ballots broke nearly 2-1 in his favor, with Bush picking up 1,380 votes to Gore’s 750.

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris released the overseas vote totals unceremoniously, in contrast to her earlier plans to certify the election and award Florida to Bush — making him president-elect, pending further litigation.

Those plans were halted when the state Supreme Court on Friday unanimously blocked certification of the election at least until a hearing at 2 p.m. Monday.

In legal briefs filed Saturday, Gore’s attorneys asked the high court to include hand-counted ballots in the final certified results, charging that Harris, a Republican and strong Bush backer, is playing a "Kafkaesque" game of changing her position to shut off further counting.

Gore’s lawyers also attacked the reliability of computers for counting ballots — the method used on Election Day and in a mandatory statewide recount — and said hand counting provides a more accurate total.

"Machine reading of punch-card ballots will predictably misread a certain percentage of ballots," the brief said. "In a close election, that percentage will affect the results of an election."

Attorneys for Bush are due to respond todayc.

Separately, the Bush campaign accused Democrats of a targeted effort to disqualify as many as one-third of the overseas ballots cast by Republican-leaning members of the armed services. The campaign even issued a statement from retired Army Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, a Florida resident, criticizing the Democrats.

Gore officials accused the Bush campaign of hypocrisy. Ron Klain, a senior strategist for Gore’s post-election operations, said the votes of ordinary citizens, such as "policemen, firemen and nurses," should be just as carefully counted as those of soldiers living abroad. "Their newfound dedication to the counting of ballots, while welcome, seems a little off," he said.

The invective between the two campaigns was matched by their proxies in Florida.

In Palm Beach County, the recounting degenerated into near slapstick, amid allegations of misplaced votes, dropped ballots, intentional delays — even attempts by partisan spies to infiltrate behind enemy lines by enlisting as ballot counters for the other side.

Democrats accused Republicans of purposely gumming up the process.

In some of the 88 precincts that had been counted — but not yet certified — more than 400 votes had been challenged and routed to a pile that would be reviewed later, said Dennis Newman, an attorney for the Florida Democratic Party and an elections observer in West Palm Beach.

Tucker Eskew, a spokesman for Bush, denied attempts to sabotage the count. "We are doing our jobs," Eskew said. "It’s not a slowdown."

But privately, some Republicans admitted they hoped to drag out the recount as long as possible.

Palm Beach County Judge Charles Burton, the chairman of the canvassing board, accused Republicans of dilatory tactics.

"We’re sitting here wasting all our time," he said. "We will be here until Christmas (at this pace)."

The scene was similar in adjacent Broward County, where accusations flew in the hot, humid hurricane shelter-turned-counting room.

There, too, Democrats charged that Republicans were trying to grind the process to a halt by making frivolous ballot challenges. "What’s ironic here is that Republicans keep saying that they want it over but they’re doing whatever they can to slow this thing down," said Steve Geller, a Democratic state senator.

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