In the Field of Chads
Why the hell isn't Al Gore--instead of me--doing this?
It's 11:30 in the morning, the third day of the new year, and that's what I am thinking as I sit in a bland conference room on the eighteenth floor of the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami. I am examining the infamous Miami-Dade ballots, the "undervote" punch cards that did not register a presidential preference when processed by tabulation machines on November 7. There were about 10,500 of these ballots (1.6 percent of the votes recorded in Miami-Dade) and up to 60,000 undervotes throughout the state. I've been at it--staring at one ballot at a time--for about two hours. The thrill is gone. The eyestrain has begun.
Only a few people are engaged in this history-making though drudgery-ridden exercise. Six organizations are paying the county $10 an hour for the privilege of reviewing the ballots. Those bothering are an accountant-reporter team from the Miami Herald (which is examining Florida undervotes in all but four small counties), a reporter from the Palm Beach Post, officials from the state Republican Party, a reporter from Inside Edition, several accountants retained by Larry Klayman's Judicial Watch (a conservative outfit that has filed dozens of lawsuits against the Clinton Administration) and yours truly. No Democratic Party officials are participating, and none of the media biggies have shown. A week later, the Wall Street Journal, the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post and others--rather than mount their own reviews--would form a cost-sharing consortium to examine the state's undervotes and overvotes. (The latter are ballots that were recorded bearing more than one vote in the presidential race; the state Supreme Court recount order did not extend to these ballots.)
There is a whimper-not-a-bang feel to the occasion. We sit at individual tables, and temps hold up the ballots. We are not allowed to touch the cards. We gaze at them, searching for dimples, bumps, bulges, punctures, jagged holes, pen marks, pinpricks, rips and hanging, swinging or dislodged chads. And we can judge the ballots entirely as we choose. As Miami-Dade officials repeatedly note, this is not a "recount"; it is an "inspection."
During three days of review, I will examine and consider the meanings of 3,409 ballots from precincts--including African-American neighborhoods that backed Gore and Cuban-American areas that went for Bush--that split the Gore/Bush vote 55 percent to 45 percent in Gore's favor. (The full countywide tally divided 53.2 to 46.8 percent Gore's way.) And the numbers? How many votes did Gore pick up? Would he have won Florida--and taken the nation--had the Miami-Dade recount not been thwarted by, first, the county elections canvassing board and, then, five Republican-appointed members of the US Supreme Court? Well, not so fast. I'll get to the totals. But here's a teaser: The results of this painstaking manual review contradicted the melodramatic spin of both the Bush camp and the Gore gang. The fundamental assertions pushed by each side--for the Bushies, it was that manual recounts are arbitrary acts of folly; for the Gore crowd, it was that if you count them, he will win--were undermined by these castaway ballots.
I and the other journalists arrived at the government center hoping to gather hard-and-fast answers to the murky questions floating in the wake of the messy presidential election. The Republican officials are present to keep an eye on the reporters. They are collecting ammunition, in case anyone in the media declares that Gore nets the 538 votes he needed to win the state. And Klayman is grabbing television face-time. As the review begins, he raises a fuss for the TV news cameras. He has asked that his accountants be allowed to sit at tables and review punch cards alongside the other participants. He claims he wants to speed up the process. It seems he is more interested in monitoring the inspections of others. David Leahy, the county elections supervisor, rejected the request, and Klayman huffs that the county "must have something to hide." His accusations are curious. Leahy, who holds a nonpartisan position, is a member of the three-person canvassing board that shut down the Miami-Dade recount the day before Thanksgiving, after khaki-clad Republican aides flown in from Capitol Hill mounted a thuggish protest on the nineteenth floor. The board's move enraged Democrats. And during the postelection period, Leahy consistently opposed conducting a manual review. (He says he did not believe a Miami-Dade recount would produce enough votes to alter the statewide results.) So why is Klayman giving him a difficult time? Moments later, Klayman informs me the county is worried because "there are irregularities here." He maintains that I will find such suspicious-looking ballots as punch cards with "chads scotch-taped back in."