George W. Bush may have secured his place in the White House, but dozens still want to count those Florida ballots. Who will do it and how?
The race for the presidency may be over, but the counting is far from done.
Just as Vice President Gore's lawyers predicted in their arguments to both the U.S. and Florida Supreme Courts, dozens of groups, newspapers and individuals are clamoring to count the disputed - and even the undisputed ballots - in Florida's 67 counties.
Requests Are 'Overwhelming'
At least eight Florida newspapers are in talks now to collectively recount all of Florida's ballots. U.S. News and World Report and the Wall Street Journal have also expressed interest. The Rev. Jesse Jackson's group, the Rainbow Push Coalition, plans to submit requests jointly with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to count ballots in disputed counties.
One group, Judicial Watch, a conservative government watchdog organization, already gained a day of access to analyze ballots from Palm Beach County. As Judicial Watch waits to see more, many, many more await their first chances.
"It's literally overwhelming," says Ian Sancho, supervisor of elections in Florida's Leon County. Sancho says he's already received a flood of requests from groups, newspapers and individuals to review ballots even though the results from his county were hardly even disputed.
But how will the re-recounts count?
First of all, there will be no journalists or advocates holding punchcard ballots up to the light. Under Florida election law, the public may look at the ballots, but only Florida election officials are permitted to handle them.
This could make reading unclear ballots challenging, but Barbara Peterson, director of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, Fla., says it won't be the hardest part.
"Counting them is going to be tedious, but not difficult," she says. "The difficulty will be in coming up with standards."
Deciding How to Count
Standards is just what the majority Supreme Court justices ruled was lacking in the manual recounts ordered by Florida's Supreme Court. Florida lawmakers may not have been able to devise rules for manual recounts in time to affect the election, but now that there are no deadlines, journalists and public advocates are considering all options.
"Our feeling is to do it right, we'd have to do a statewide count," says Earl Maucker, vice president and editor of the Florida Sun Sentinel. "Then we may break it down - here are the totals counting the hanging chads, here are the totals counting dimpled chads, counting pregnant chads, and so on. We would try to give the totals some context."
Mauker and Peterson argue that the Florida newspaper consortium are the best group to do the recount job since, together, they represent a non-partisan collective.
"Groups everywhere are coming out of the woodwork to do the counting," Mauker says. "But what better and more credible structure could you give the job to than a group of newspapers?"
Analyzing Instead of Counting
John Barbosek, managing editor of the Palm Beach Post, isn't even interested in counting. He just wants access to the much-disputed ballots in his county to find where the confusion existed for officials during Palm Beach County's manual recounts.
"For us to provide a fifth or sixth count total would be a waste of time," he says. "We'd like to try and inform our readers on what the canvassing board and the paid counters saw and what they had to look at to make a decision."
Rather than doing it themselves, Judicial Watch hired an outside accounting firm, Johnson Lambert and Co., to analyze ballots. Before Leon County Circuit Court Judge Sanders Sauls ordered ballots to be sent to Tallahassee for possible official recounts, the firm assessed the status of 630 ballots from Palm Beach County and broke them down by dimples, multiple dimples, hanging chads, punches and partial punches.
Since their analysis was cut short, their results aren't very telling yet. And the ballots remain under lock and key, but Judicial Watch hopes to be the first back at them since, they believe, they were the first to request to see them.
Barry Naleboff, a professor of management at Yale University, hopes to see analysts take a closer look at the Palm Beach County ballots to learn how many otherwise Democratic ballots showed votes for Reform Party Pat Buchanan. In Palm Beach County, several Democratic voters complained the ballot format led them to mistakenly vote for Buchanan for president rather than Gore.
"Outside Palm Beach County, there may be a handful of Buchanan votes with otherwise democratic ticket," says Naleboff. "But in Palm Beach County, I think it could be 2,000."
Lacking Time, People
With so many groups and individuals vying for a look at the ballots, election officials aren't sure how to handle all the demands. Sancho explains that all Florida election officials have to prepare for upcoming municipal elections in March. He expects that supervising any extra counting of the presidential ballots will require bringing in more help. And groups requesting to see the ballots may have to help pay for that extra help, he says.
"If there are only two staff members in your county, it's just impossible," Sancho says. "These are practical matters that news media and others have no inkling of."
Fitten of Judicial Watch has little sympathy.
"They say the work is too much, well that's too bad," he says. "The law could not be clearer - there's a right to access these ballots."
Florida's commonly cited Sunshine Law dictates that all government documents be made public unless otherwise noted. And Florida election law states that "official ballots and ballot cards shall be open for public inspection while under the supervision and in the custody of the supervisor of elections or the county canvassing board."
Preserving the Ballots
Florida's rules about when and how requests to see ballots are fulfilled are written in vague terms, saying only that it needs to occur within a "reasonable time" and under "reasonable conditions."
Despite the crunch, Sancho says that canvassing board officials hope to accommodate the requests at least before the municipal elections begin in March.
"It's a daunting task - one that should be done, I think," he says. "But I also think it needs to be well thought out so there's no chance the record is damaged for future generations."
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