World

The Standoff in the South

Andrew Phillips December 4 2000
World

The Standoff in the South

Andrew Phillips December 4 2000

The Standoff in the South

World

Florida declares George W. Bush the winner of its Electoral College votes, but Al Gore vows to fight on

By Andrew Phillips in West Palm Beach

“Wanna see one?” Camilla Moore asks conspiratorially. She glances around, then beckons a visitor into the shade of a palm tree outside the cavernous Emergency Operations Center in West Palm Beach, Fla. Inside, weary volunteers are hard at work, eyeballing precisely 462,644 punch-card ballots, trying to figure out nothing less than who has the right to claim the White House. But Moore, a Republican who came down from Atlanta to help her party keep an eye on the vote tally in Palm Beach County, has the real deal. She’s spent the morning inside the counting chamber, and now turns the plastic envelope holding her official observer ID card around to show off her prize: two tiny chads tucked inside. “We’re not supposed to touch them,” she admits, “but I couldn’t resist. Aren’t they the cutest?”

You couldn’t blame Moore—even if her decision to grab a chad or two wasn’t strictly kosher. As the Great Chad War raged across south Florida last week, the accusations were flying. Republicans charged Democrats with wantonly letting chads drop to the floor, even eating some of the little ballot bits. In the impressively modern Palm Beach courthouse, high-priced lawyers took up the crucial issue: how pregnant must a chad be before it can be counted as a vote? How dimpled must it be before it amounts to an exercise of the democratic franchise and not just a slip of the stylus? Out there somewhere, Vice-President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush were ratcheting up the rhetoric in their increasingly bitter struggle for the presidency. But at ground level in America’s millennial Extra Innings Election, it mostly seemed just plain silly. “I know there’s a lot at stake,” Moore said near the end of her third day in Palm Beach, “but what I want to know is, can we get through this with our sanity?”

For the counters and observers, at least, that part is over— unless, of course, yet another court orders yet more counting. But the showdown between Bush and Gore turned, if

anything, more intense. Republicans in Florida’s legislature and even the U.S. Congress began hinting that they might step in if further recounts tip the election to Gore. And the vice-president made it plain that he intends to fight on until all the votes he wants counted are counted—even if the United States’ most confused, and confusing, election in a century drags on well into December.

That’s what he did as soon as what was supposed to be the final count was announced on Sunday night. Florida’s

Supreme Court had ruled that ballots being tallied by hand must be included in the result, and set 5 p.m. on Nov. 26 for all votes to be in. When the numbers were announced, they showed Bush still barely ahead, by just 537 votes out of six million cast statewide. Florida’s controversial secretary of state, Katherine Harris, immediately certified that result even though Palm Beach failed to meet the deadline—costing Gore almost 200 extra votes. Her decision—if it stands up to inevitable court challenges—meant that Bush would receive Florida’s 25 electoral votes, giving him a bare majority of 271 in the Electoral College and thus the presidency. But just six minutes after Harris declared Bush the winner, Gore’s vice-presidential running mate, Joseph Lieberman, strode before a bank of TV cameras and denounced the result as “inaccurate and incomplete.”

The effect: yet more of the same in the election that refuses to die. The next morning, Gore’s lawyers went to court to formally contest the results in three Florida counties, setting off a new round of challenge and counter-challenge. Both sides prepared to argue before the U.S. Supreme Court late this week. And, most important, both fought for the moral high ground. Harris’s formal certification of the Florida result—even though it was immediately contested—gives

Bush an important advantage. It allowed him to grab the spodight and make a presidential-style TV address from the Texas legislature, calling on Gore to drop his challenges and even announcing that he would press ahead with a formal transition to a new presidency. “Now that the votes have been counted,” he said, “it is time for the votes to count.”

Gore faced the more delicate task of continuing to fight in the courts while not appearing to be what Republican protesters accuse him of being: a sore loser. And he faced an added burden. Although Republicans, desperate to retake the White House after eight years of Clinton-Gore, are firmly behind Bush, Democrats are less united behind Gore. If public impatience with him rises, the vice-president could well feel pressure from his own party to call off the fight.

On the ground in south Florida, at least one thing was painfully clear: no one will ever really know who won the state. Inside the Palm Beach counting centre last week, it was so quiet you could hear a chad drop as officials and party volunteers laboured away, turning each punch card over, holding it against red paper—the better to see the tiny holes left by a voter’s stylus. “Five,” they whispered if the ballot was clearly marked for Gore; “three,” if it was punched for Bush. Unclear cards accumulated in piles, awaiting a ruling from the county’s beleaguered canvassing board. Disagreements were absurdly trivial, given the stakes involved. “Can we count in twenties rather than fifties?” asked a

Both sides fought for the moral high ground as the issue of choosing the president headed for the U.S. Supreme Court

Republican. “I’ll have to check with our lawyers,” a Democrat replied. Five minutes later, the answer: “We can do twenties.”

In room 4D of the Palm Beach County courthouse the next morning, the election board chairman, Charles Burton, was interrogated about just how local officials decided who gets what vote. Were they counting all the dimpled chads, or leaving some out? Democrats argued passionately that democracy demands that all dimples be equal: they estimated that counting all dimpled ballots meant Gore would pick up several hundred more votes. “Here’s how you can remember it,” said Ben Kuehne, a sober-suited Democratic lawyer. “An indentation is an indication that they spoke for the nation.”

Burton, who spent 18-hour days doing little but examining indentations on ballots, was not so sure. Sometimes it’s clear,

he said, and sometimes it’s not: “In all candour, determining intent from a ballot card is impossible.” In other words, when it comes down to a few hundred votes—as it did in Florida— the scratches and holes on the most contested ballot cards mean that not even the most impartial counters could figure out exactly who won. The presiding judge, Jorge Labarga, ducked the issue. He ordered the canvassing board to consider the “totality” of the ballot— a ruling that left matters as unclear as ever.

But it was a higher court—Florida’s sevenmember Supreme Court—that had the biggest say. Gore’s campaign won what it thought was a decisive victory on Tuesday when the court ruled unanimously that the result of manual recounts in three heavily Democratic counties— Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade—must be included in the state’s final tally. And it ruled that election boards should have wide discretion to consider dimpled ballots and

other marks. “Voters should not be disenfranchised,” the court wrote, “when their intent may be ascertained with reasonable certainty.”

That seemed to open the door for local officials to adopt more liberal standards in evaluating contested ballots—a result that Gore’s camp hoped would help the vice-president pick up a few hundred extra votes. Republicans were furious: they pointed out that six of the seven Supreme Court judges are Democrats, and they raised the possibility that the state legislature might step in to prevent Gore from claiming Florida’s electoral votes. “Make no mistake, the court rewrote the law,” Bush declared. The setbacks for the Bush campaign only deepened early the next morning when his vicepresidential candidate, Dick Cheney, took himself to a hospital in Washington suffering from chest and shoulder pains. Cheney had three heart attacks in the 1970s and 1980s, and doctors discovered that he had suffered a fourth, “very mild” attack. Two days later, though, Cheney left the hospital and vowed to return to work this week.

Still, nothing in the post-election campaign has stayed constant for long—and the Bush campaign’s dejection was to be no exception. The Florida high court had included a sting in its ruling for the Gore forces: aware that Florida must choose its presidential electors by Dec. 12, it ruled that the result of all manual recounts must be in by 5 p.m. on Nov. 26. Counts were well under way in two counties, Palm Beach and Broward. But in the biggest district, Miami-Dade, whose 654,000 ballots represented potentially the biggest trove of 2 new votes for Gore, local officials had dragged their heels. I First they decided to try to count 10,700 contested ballots by 1 the deadline. Then, faced with furious protests by local Re| publicans, they decided not to count any ballots. “We simI ply can’t get it done,” said elections supervisor David Leahy.

The bottom line: three weeks after they thought they had settled matters at the ballot box, Americans still don’t know who will take over from President Bill Clinton on Jan. 20— and won’t know for days to come. Scenarios once bandied around only among political junkies began to take on the air of real possibility. Leading members of the Florida legislature, where Republicans dominate, threatened to step in and appoint their own slate of 25 electors if Gore succeeds in overturning Bush’s slim lead. “We will not allow the people’s voice to be silenced,” said Mike Fasano, majority leader in the state House of Representatives.

So far, at least, Americans have shown remarkable patience with their endless election. They would rather get it right, according to most polls, than get it done quickly. But real-life deadlines are looming fast—especially the Dec. 12 date by which Florida must choose its electors. If Bush and Gore are still arguing then, their contest will be close to passing from political soap opera to genuine crisis. G33