WASHINGTON -- Al Gore's high-priced lawyers were surprisingly unimpressive in Tallahassee Saturday as they presented their case in circuit court for manual recounts of heavily Democratic counties. But beyond this failure to show evidence of fraud, the ballots they claim should be counted for the first time actually have been handled so many times that they are in no condition to be accurately tabulated.
In Miami-Dade County, an unannounced attempt last week to recount precincts that the Gore campaign heavily relies on resulted only in confusion before the effort was aborted and the ballots packed off to Tallahassee. A nonpolitical accounting firm found troubling irregularities in Palm Beach County's completed manual recount. And a court filing by a nonpartisan conservative organization alleged even worse.
This undermines the mantra enunciated by Vice President Gore that thousands of ballots never have been counted. It is increasingly difficult to see how even the results-oriented Florida Supreme Court can count Gore in to the presidency, but the Democratic effort will not end on Inauguration Day, Jan. 20. Bill Clinton's permanent campaign has become the long, long recount, with threats that citizen groups will make their own count next year and de-legitimize George W. Bush's presidency by claiming he was fraudulently elected.
The Democratic formula for handling close elections, familiar in congressional and statewide elections for the past two decades, has now been applied at the presidential level -- and extended indefinitely into the future. First, count, recount and recount so long as the results are negative. Second, don't worry about rough handling of ballots. Third, whenever a count is positive, declare victory.
Certainly, the physical state of the south Florida ballots is not what it was on Nov. 8, when they were sent through a machine recount. That was demonstrated last Wednesday when the Miami-Dade canvassing board suddenly started counting the supposed "undervotes" -- ballots with no clear choice indicated for president.
Election officials told Republican observers that, mysteriously, "100 to 150" precincts showed fewer undervotes than on the previous recount. The floor littered with chads suggested voting in effect continuing long after the election. These were among the ballots packed and sent to the state capital on the orders of Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls.
In contrast to continued confusion in Miami-Dade, Palm Beach County's canvassing board under the well-meaning Judge Charles Burton was generally commended by Republicans for its manual recount that was completed too late on Nov. 26 to be certified. But a report three days later, last Wednesday, by the politically neutral but experienced accounting firm of Johnson Lambert & Co. questions whether the recount demanded by Gore lawyers would be credible.
"Because of the lack of formal segregation and subtotals," said Johnson Lambert, "if a questionable ballot were misplaced, there would be no way to determine how it was actually recounted." The accounting firm noted ballots "that had chad (sic) that were taped back onto the ballot." Duplicate ballots were prepared by counters "because the original ballot was damaged." The report concluded that "reliance on manual vote-counting procedures is dependent upon resolution of these matters."
Johnson Lambert was retained by Judicial Watch, the conservative but non-partisan organization renowned for filing multiple lawsuits against the Clintons. Under Florida's "sunshine law," it had won access to Palm Beach County ballots before they were trucked up to Tallahassee. In filing a motion for continued access last week, Judicial Watch reported what it had learned by inspecting ballots.
The motion quoted county officials as admitting "that they kept no records of how specific disputed ballots were adjudicated" and that "officials and 'volunteers' attempted to 'recreate'" ballots that had been destroyed in machine recounts. It added: "Chads have been taped onto ballots, allegedly to prevent them from falling off, and/or allegedly because the 'voter;' had changed his or her mind."
These altered and damaged ballots are the source of Gore's relentlessly repeated claim that not all Florida votes have been counted, with even the constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe arguing before the Supreme Court on Friday that the heart of the case was "disenfranchisement." But the long, long recount, intended to haunt George W. Bush through his presidency, is based on debased evidence.