Election hinges on two views of 'valid vote'

The validity of the hand count depends on which view the Florida high court takes.

Lawyers for Vice President Al Gore are asking the Florida Supreme Court - nearly two weeks after the election - to redefine what constitutes a valid vote for president in three heavily Democratic counties in Florida.

That is the essence of arguments presented in legal briefs to the state's highest court.

If a majority of the seven justices agree, it could create a new pool of ballots from which enough votes can be identified for Mr. Gore to win the Nov. 7 presidential election.

The magic number is 930.

That's how many votes Gore must pick up in manual ballot recounts to catch George W. Bush in what has become a post-election, ballot-counting dash for the presidency.

There is one sure way for Gore to catch Mr. Bush: a hand recount of all ballots cast in three Democratic-leaning counties that identifies enough uncounted Gore votes to overtake Bush.

But Gore supporters face a substantial problem. If people conducting the hand recounts identify votes only on the basis of clearly punched ballots that should have been properly read by the vote-counting machine, analysts say, there likely will not be enough previously uncounted Gore votes to bypass Bush.

To overcome this problem, Gore supporters are asking the Florida Supreme Court to expand the definition of a valid vote for president.

In an election that was meant from the start to use punch-out ballots to be counted by machine, the standard of what constitutes a valid vote has always been clearly defined: It is a vote that the machine can read.

But when it became clear that the race might be extremely close, Gore supporters asked for manual recounts in counties that are Democratic strongholds.

Dimpled ballots

At the same time, they filed lawsuits against the Democratically controlled local canvassing commissions to force them to adopt a more liberal standard of vote counting that would create the largest possible pool of uncounted Gore votes. Those votes would include any ballot with even a minor dimple on it.

They are now asking the Supreme Court to impose those same standards on any counties performing hand recounts.

"You cannot come up with an accurate count based on that process," says John Thrasher, Republican Speaker of Florida's House of Representatives. "It is a flawed process that inherently is going to cause errors to occur."

Rep. Peter Deutsch (D) of Florida disagrees.

"You are not giving any one person's vote an advantage, you are just determining one person's vote," he says.

Intent of the voters

It is necessary to consider the objective intent of each voter by closely examining each ballot, he adds. To do any less would disenfranchise large numbers of voters.

"This process is not about electing Al Gore or George W. Bush president," Representative Deutsch says. "This is about having a fair process for the people of Florida and the people of the United States."

In Florida, local canvassing commissions are empowered to determine their own standards when conducting hand recounts. In the event of questions or confusion, they are to seek guidance from the state's top elections official, the secretary of state.

But at the same time, she was subject to multiple attacks by Gore supporters on her objectivity, credibility, and even her choice of makeup because of her decision not to accept manual recounts as part of the final tally.

During this same period, Florida's Attorney General Bob Butterworth issued his own legal memos suggesting to the Democratic canvassing commissions that her legal opinion was wrong and that they had legal authority to proceed with hand recounts.

Ms. Harris served as co-chair of the Bush campaign in Florida. Mr. Butterworth served as chair of the Gore campaign in Florida.

In the confusing aftermath, Bush supporters have complained about a manual recount process here in Palm Beach and other counties that they say undermines the fairness and accuracy of the election. They huff about bleary-eyed counters and sloppy handling and hint about the possibility of "mischief."

Which votes count?

But the Bush campaign faces a far greater threat from a Florida Supreme Court decision that, in the stroke of a pen, could create a new universe of "hundreds" of potential Gore votes, analysts say.

In his own brief to the court, Butterworth says other courts that have faced the same issue have treated machine-counted ballots as if they were paper ballots. That is, they allow the recount officials to attempt to discover the intent of the voter and to credit the ballot as a valid vote if they find any evidence to support the assumption.

But what the attorney general doesn't point out is that the cases he cites all involve single-jurisdiction vote counts, in which the imposed standard apply to all potential ballots in a given race.

In Florida, Gore lawyers are asking that the special standard apply only to ballots being recounted in three south Florida counties. Similar pools of uncounted votes in Republican strongholds would remain uncounted if the Supreme Court grants the Gore lawyers' request.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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