A mundane task of critical importance

With quibbles over hanging and dimpled 'chads,' counting is harder than it looks.

The people were switching seats with one another and swapping stories. Two women talk about the Florida State-Florida football game. "The hotels are all full in town," says one.

A male ballot counter chats about laundry detergent. "I'm glad I'm here to show my support for the County Election Board," says a third.

So goes life in this under-the-microscope town, a place where the menial mixes with the momentous in a drab building by the West Palm Beach Airport.

While the official ballot counters know their work may determine who is the next president, they spend their idle moments talking as if a friend had just walked up to ask about that unsightly lawn ornament in the neighbor's front yard.

They've had a lot of idle moments lately, waiting for the judges and lawyers and politicians to make their next moves. But, in the end, it may be ordinary people like these - and their common-sense judgments - who determine the denouement to Election 2000.

For the hand counters here and elsewhere, it all comes down to the smallest of details. Is the hole punch in the ballot dimpled or torn? One corner or three?

Who's counting?

By and large, the people asking these questions - the counters and observers - are ordinary people, from lawyers to bricklayers, huddled over stacks of manila voting ballots.

Leading up to the recounts, Democrat Al Gore trailed Republican George W. Bush by a minuscule 300 votes. At stake are Florida's 25 electoral votes, which will push the winner over the threshold needed to claim the presidency.

"We're doing the best we can," says Chuck Suits, a county official who was helping out at the West Palm Beach emergency center, where counters have congregated. The setting, a desolate part of town, has all of a sudden become the center of the country.

Gathered outside are hundreds of reporters and other interested parties. Security around the building is high.

The Palm Beach County canvassing board has laid down the rules. It has separated the counters and observers into 25 teams, which are charged with determining the votes that will be counted and the votes that will be discarded and never heard from again.

There are more than 460,000 ballots to be counted and, barring a court injunction, the hand recount will take about six days to complete.

Each team is made up of two county-employed counters, one from each party, and two observers, one Democrat and one Republican. Assuming they resume their count, they'll be taking a close look at the "chads," the small pieces of ballot that are supposed to be punched through the paper by the voters. The counters will try to determine which ones had been punched sufficiently to count as a vote.

The absentee-ballot question

Even if the recount controversy is not resolved immediately, the battle over Florida is poised to intensify on another front: the absentee ballots arriving from abroad.

The Bush and Gore camps each hope they can gain ground with these ballots - of which as many as 10,000 are still outstanding.

Florida sent at least 21,000 such ballots to voters abroad who requested them, and about half have already been returned and counted, according to the Palm Beach Post, which polled 66 of Florida's 67 counties about their overseas absentee ballots. That means it's possible another 10,000 or so ballots have yet to be counted - although it's impossible to know how many will arrive, correctly postmarked, by tomorrow's deadline.

Traditionally, Republicans have held the advantage in overseas absentee ballots. Many are from military personnel, who in the past have disproportionately supported the GOP. In 1996, Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole took 54 percent of those votes, while Bill Clinton won the state overall.

But even with the absentee ballots, controversy pervades. A Florida lawyer, a Democrat, is complaining that absentee-ballot requests in Seminole County were improperly filled out by Republicans.

He is threatening a lawsuit, claiming Republican officials filled in incomplete requests, specifically the voter-identification numbers, after voters making the request had already signed forms.

There are, however, glimmers of hope for Gore backers. They are looking for a strong showing from about 2,000 Floridians living in Israel. Also, they point out that the lower ranks of the military are not as conservative as the upper brass, and that they could throw some support to Gore.

"I have no idea who will get more votes," says Nancy Butler, supervisor of absentee ballots in Broward County, a traditional Democratic stronghold. "Traditionally, the military is more conservative. But actually we mailed more ballots to Democrats than to Republican overseas."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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