In Florida, the recount goes on ... and on

Bush is president no matter the tally, but recounts could harm his brother's future.

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They are still counting votes in Florida.

And if some projections prove accurate, the counting may continue well past George W. Bush's first 100 days in the Oval Office.

The prospect of unofficial recounts has some Republicans worried that Mr. Bush may become the first president in US history to survive his traditional "honeymoon" in office only to find himself facing fresh accusations that his opponent really won the election.

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But many analysts doubt such unofficial recounts will provide a definitive answer about who received more votes in Florida's Nov. 7 election. Instead, the recounts will most likely provide little more than yet another opportunity for debate among partisans on both sides of the electoral dispute.

"I think there will always be a question mark," says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "If you are a Bush supporter you will think any recount is hocus pocus, and if you are a Gore supporter, you are going to say 'I told you so,' " she says.

The counting under way in Florida by various media and public interest groups is not an official recount, and has no legal significance. But the results of the counting could have important political ramifications.

The legitimacy of the Bush presidency is on the line. But no matter what an unofficial recount shows, he will remain president. And the momentum of a new administration facing new challenges at home and abroad may outpace lingering concerns about the electoral mess in Florida for all but the most intense partisans, analysts say.

The recounts may be much more significant to the political future of Bush's younger brother, Jeb, the Florida governor, who faces a tough reelection bid in two years.

If unofficial recounts show large numbers of uncounted votes for Vice President Al Gore - particularly in Florida's historically excluded minority communities - Florida Democrats will likely channel voter discontent into a campaign to unseat Jeb.

The Florida governor has already moved to head off such criticism by appointing a special commission to investigate voting problems in Florida and recommend reforms.

Pam Iorio, supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County and chairwoman of the Florida Supervisors of Elections, praises the move. "I think the next three months will be critical," she says of the reform efforts.

The current counting focuses on some 40,000 to 60,000 disputed ballots that are considered undervotes - ballots cast in which machines did not record any vote for president.

In counties where punch card ballots were used, some of the undervotes occurred when ballot "chads" that were not completely punched through swung closed while passing through the counting machine.

In addition, machines did not read as valid votes those ballots in which the chad was merely dented or dimpled.In counties where hand recounts were conducted by a local canvassing board, some dimpled chads were counted as valid votes.

One major issue in the unofficial recount is whether such dimpled chads will, again, be counted as valid votes.

Republican officials say any count should be based on what a counting machine would consider a valid vote, rather than attempting to divine the intent of voters who cast dented or dimpled ballots.

But others who support the new counting effort say it is aimed at categorizing the ballots rather than attempting to make judgments about which ballots are valid votes. In counties that used punch cards, each of the disputed ballots will be classified as a clear puncture, a partial puncture, a dimple, or as a ballot with no mark.

When the count is complete, the results will be analyzed to see whether Bush or Gore would have won had the state set a clear puncture standard, for instance, and whether those results would have changed under a more liberal standard of counting dimpled chads as votes as well.

No statewide standard has ever been set. Florida election law provides that votes should be counted by a machine.

But it also says that in cases when a hand recount is requested, local canvassing boards must consider the intent of the voter in deciding which ballots are valid votes.

This lack of a clear statewide standard, and the fact that some dimpled ballots were being counted as votes in some counties but not in others, prompted seven justices of the US Supreme Court to strike down the Florida recount effort in early December as a violation of US constitutional guarantees of equal treatment. No common vote standard has since been set.

"I don't think we will ever really know for sure who won the state because it is going to come down to the standard employed to count the vote," says Aubrey Jewett, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida in Orlando."My feeling is that if you use a fairly strict standard, George W. Bush would still win."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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