1. Archive

Ballots get a going-over, yet again

The Miami Herald and GOP scrutinize Hernando ballots set aside as possible undervotes.

Retiring Supervisor of Elections Ann Mau preferred to be removing plaques and pictures from her office.

Mau's successor, Annie Williams, wanted to spend Thursday morning at home with her children, preparing invitations to her swearing-in ceremony.

"I'm on vacation," she said.

Instead, Mau, Williams and their staff found themselves once again dealing with Florida's seemingly unending preoccupation with its presidential election. The Miami Herald and the Republican Party of Florida each paid $130 per hour to have representatives pore over the ballots set aside as possible undervotes from the Nov. 7 race, already decided for George W. Bush.

"It was time-consuming, but you don't really look at it as a burden because it's just a function of the public records law," said Mau, who had to close her department's Spring Hill office to have enough workers to handle the review.

Only Elections Office employees were allowed to touch the ballots, and several were on vacation.

"I don't feel like it's putting a hardship on the office," Mau said, noting that the week between Christmas and New Year's Day usually is quiet.

For 2{ hours, the representatives from the Herald and the Republican Party stared at the 186 paper ballots that had been sorted during a short-lived Dec. 9 recount effort launched by Vice President Al Gore's campaign and bolstered by the Florida Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court ended that count before the undervoted ballots were fully segregated, and Mau made no secret that these might not be the ones that election computers identified on Election Day as undervotes.

She called a batch of them "your guess is as good as mine" ballots.

Some clearly were blank, but others were less obviously the correct ballot. One, for instance, had a circle drawn around the oval for Gore but the oval was not filled in properly. A similar one was cast for Bush. A large number had ovals filled for more than one candidate, while some had only one oval darkened, yet smudges, pencil erasures or white-out marks in other ovals.

Whether those ballots were counted on Nov. 7 remained unclear.

Still, the two teams kept detailed tallies of how each selected ballot looked _ no mark, circled candidate or underlined candidate, for example _ writing comments to make clear what they saw.

"I'm not making a determination of what we found. I'm just recording," Herald reporter Phil Long said. "My sense is, in counties where there are ballots like these, it will be reasonably clear. I have not had any trouble understanding that no mark meant no mark. There are many voters who appeared to have not voted in the presidential race."

Jeanne McIntosh, representing the Republican Party of Florida, said she could see no true value in the process. Many ballots had not been identified, and it was not certain that the ones pulled aside were the ones originally counted as blank or overvoted.

The party paid, she said, because "we wanted to see what they were seeing. The only way to get up close and see the ballots like that was to be a paying person at the table."

Observers from the local chapters of the Republican and Democratic parties monitored the process.

Jean Konski, vice chairwoman of the county Democratic Executive Committee, suggested some good might come of this exercise.

"I think it's going to be for research for the media, so they can see what went wrong (in the election) and how it can be corrected so it doesn't happen again," Konski said, adding that it also might show that the wrong person is in the White House.

Republican Executive Committee Chairman Frank Colletti saw a more nefarious motive afoot.

"The election is over," Colletti said. "The interest of the people who requested to see the ballots from the East Coast . . . was just to make another story and maybe cast some shadow on the election results. Once you get past that, we haven't proved anything."

The reviews might not be complete yet. Several other newspapers, including the St. Petersburg Times, New York Times and Chicago Tribune, have made similar requests to see the ballots.

Mau set aside the ballots after the GOP and Miami Herald finished their work in case representatives from any of those organizations follow through. Williams said she would accommodate anyone who wants to see the ballots and cover the associated costs.

"It's just routine," she said.