What is a valid vote for president of the United States?
It seems remarkable, but even now - 21 days after the Nov. 7 election - the answer to that question depends on where in Florida you ask it.
In Broward County, a single dimple on a ballot is a vote.
In neighboring Palm Beach County, that same dimple only counts as a vote if there are other dimples elsewhere on the ballot.
While in Hillsborough County and more than 20 other counties across Florida, dimples mean nothing at all. The only valid vote is one in which the ballot "chad" has been punctured so that a machine can register it by shining light through the hole.
This lack of uniformity in what constitutes a valid vote lies at the heart of the legal battle over who won the presidential election.
It will play a central role in efforts by Al Gore to contest the certification of George W. Bush as the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes. And it is a key issue behind the arguments to be heard on Friday by the US Supreme Court.
But until election officials or judges reviewing the dispute set a common standard delineating for all Florida counties which votes count in Florida and which do not, the election will remain shrouded in a fog of uncertainty, suspicion, and distrust.
In addition, it threatens to undermine the legitimacy of the next president, whether Mr. Gore or Mr. Bush.
On Nov. 7, there was no doubt about how to win Florida's 25 electoral votes. The clear, jointly accepted standard for presidential victory was whichever candidate received the most votes as read by a machine.
Three weeks later, new categories of votes have been counted from ballots that would not have been recognized as valid votes on election night.
For example, a vote-counting machine is unable to register a dimpled chad as a legitimate vote. But local canvassing boards in both Broward and Palm Beach have determined since the election that, under certain circumstances, dimples are votes.
How many dimples?
The so-called dimple ballot standard has helped Gore, not only by boosting his tallies in key Democratic strongholds, but by suggesting that vast numbers of Florida voters are being disenfranchised by vote-counting machines.
Gore lawyers say that only by hand counting dimpled ballots will the true intent of Florida voters be known. But Democratic lawyers have pressed for such hand counts only in heavily Democratic counties.
To Republicans, the dimple ballot standard is an example of how the rules of the election were changed after election day. Many are asking: Is this any way to pick a president?
"The significant principle of law upon which all of this might hinge is that there do not seem to be consistent criteria," says Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, who came to Florida to witness the vote-counting process. "I believe this leads to chaos."
Democrats are also dissatisfied with the process, but for a different reason. They believe that the county canvassing board in West Palm Beach was rejecting too many dimpled ballots that might be counted as Gore votes.
On Sunday, the West Palm hand count of dimpled ballots was excluded from the final presidential total because the county missed a court-set deadline by two hours. Gore lawyers vow to fight not just to have the West Palm recount ballots included, but to force the county canvassing board to go back and count even more dimpled ballots as valid votes.
In addition, Gore lawyers are fighting to force Miami-Dade County to resume its hand recount of dimpled ballots after it abruptly halted the recount last week.
Gore lawyers are pressing their case by citing the Florida Supreme Court's ruling last week. It cites an Illinois case that says that voters should not be disenfranchised "simply because the chad they punched did not completely dislodge from the ballot." The case says election officials must instead determine the intent of the voter and count the vote.
Gore's lawyers cite the case as evidence that canvassing boards must count dimpled chads. But that 1990 case wasn't about dimpled chads, legal analysts say. Instead, the decision talks of the need to count "partially punctured ballots" as valid votes.
When faced with the prospect of manual recounts, both the Broward and Palm Beach canvassing boards set a similar "puncture" standard to determine valid votes.
But those standards were overturned by lawyers for the Democratic Party, who argued that the boards must consider dimples and voter intent based on the Florida Supreme Court's ruling.
By adopting the dimple standard, legal analysts say, both boards began counting as valid votes hundreds of dimpled ballots that would never have qualified as valid votes on election night.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society