Palm Beach comes up 2 hours short


Associated Press

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Ten days of painstaking counting and examination, mountains of ballot cards, blistered fingers, strained necks and raw nerves. Suddenly it was done, and Democratic Palm Beach County election officials hugged their Republican adversaries, who had peeked over their shoulders for days.

Then, just as suddenly, all the strain and effort didn’t matter. With a stroke of a pen Sunday night, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris erased the gargantuan pile of hand-counted ballots, nearly 400,000 in all.

Palm Beach officials missed their deadline for finishing a complete manual recount of the county’s presidential votes by about two hours. The canvassing board turned in a tally with a majority of precincts accounted for.

But that didn’t satisfy Harris, who rejected the huge manual recount and threw out about 180 votes that Vice President Al Gore would have picked up in his race against Republican George W. Bush in this Democratic-leaning county.

“It’s a slap in the face to all these people who spent a lot of time to do it,” County Judge Charles Burton, the canvassing board’s chairman, said with a trace of bitterness.

With the counting done, the focus turned to the courts. Today, a lawsuit over the county’s “butterfly ballot” was sent to the state Supreme Court. Some Democrats complained that the ballot was so confusing that they mistakenly cast votes for Pat Buchanan instead of Gore. The party is seeking a new election in the county.

Bob Crawford, a Democratic member of the Florida Election Canvassing Commission, said today that despite the controversy he was confident Bush had received the most votes in the state.

“We can keep going back and recounting and counting. We had the first count, we had the second count. Some counties did a third count, some counties did a fourth count. And no matter how you count it George W. Bush is the winner,” he said on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Burton, appearing on the same program, said “they could have waited” but he agreed the additional votes in his county “certainly wouldn’t have changed the outcome.”

Burton gave a final news conference on the raised platform in front of the blocky Emergency Operations Center that had become home to elections officials, out-of-town politicians, pro-Bush demonstrators and journalists from around the globe for nearly two weeks.

But he was alone this time, under a storm-threatening sky. Absent were his fellow elections commissioners: Carol Roberts, who had declared her willingness to go to jail if state officials blocked the massive hand recount, and Theresa LePore, the beleaguered elections supervisor who had designed the much-maligned “butterfly” ballot assailed by many Democrats as confusing and costly in votes to Gore.

Burton defended the board’s decision to take the Thanksgiving holiday off, even though it meant a failed, round-the-clock race to finish the recount.

“I really believed we could make it,” he said. “You can’t go second-guessing.”

Earlier, as the grueling examination and counting of ballot cards finally reached its end around 7 p.m., the bleary-eyed Roberts and LePore embraced each other and Democratic and Republican observers.

Lead GOP observer Mark Wallace patted Burton – who a few hours earlier had publicly yelled at him – on the shoulder. Awkward applause broke out in the chilly amphitheater, which normally is used as a hurricane emergency center and days earlier had been filled with ballot counters recruited for the task.

Then about 30 minutes later, disappointed Democrats gathered to watch Harris’ announcement on an overhead TV screen.

The room grew hushed as she read out the statewide vote totals she certified: 2,912,790 for Bush, 2,912,253 for Gore. Then came the words: “I hereby declare Governor George W. Bush the winner of Florida’s 25 electoral votes for president of the United States.”

“Disappointing, disappointing,” muttered state Sen. Ron Klein, a Democrat.

Republicans at the counting site were subdued and willing to let Bush do the talking, in a televised speech later Sunday evening.

But the vocal pro-Bush demonstrators beyond the gates whooped and exulted. And as Camp Recount began to be disassembled after so many days, there was a sense that the next phase of the election drama, most likely in the courts, would soon begin.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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