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Across state, chaos takes hold

Late on Friday afternoon, Dec. 8, 2000, an anonymous caller phoned Gwen Chandler's office with a question.

How was the Okeechobee County Supervisor of Elections going to recount the presidential ballots?

Chandler was flabbergasted.

"What recount?"

It was 4:50 p.m., almost quitting time.

The Florida Supreme Court had just ordered a statewide manual count of about 44,000 "undervoted" ballots _ those that did not register a choice for president in earlier machine counts. Chandler and election officials all across Florida were starting to see how panicked their weekend would be.

The recount had to be done fast because the federal deadline for Florida to name its electors was Dec. 12. And Chandler, like her fellow election supervisors across the state, would have to scramble to get it done.

What followed was 23 hours of chaos, from the cool forests of the Panhandle to the laid-back Keys. It ended that Saturday afternoon as word spread via fax machine that the U.S. Supreme Court had stopped the recount and now would fashion its own solution to Florida's post-election struggle.

But what would have happened had the recount continued?

George W. Bush would have won Florida by 493 votes _ and the election, according to an analysis of ballots by the St. Petersburg Times and other media organizations.

The Times and other Florida newspapers arrived at that number by asking canvassing officials to discuss the standards they would have used if they had been allowed to continue the recount. Tabulators then used those standards to determine which of the state's 175,010 uncounted ballots would have ultimately counted as a recorded vote.

It is a best estimate of reality.

As with any number from the 2000 election, the results are open to debate. But one finding emerged with certainty: Just as Republican lawyers feared, and just as dissenting Supreme Court justices predicted, people's notions of what constituted a vote differed from county to county. (Please see county-by-county chart on pages 6 and 7.)

In Leon County, for example, the canvassing board "gave great deference to voter intent," said County Commissioner Robert Rackleff, a member of the board. "We tried to count as many ballots as we could." That meant if someone marked a ballot for Gore or Bush _ but didn't do it properly _ Leon officials were inclined to count it.

In contrast, Hendry County canvassers were sticklers. If a voter marked a ballot incorrectly, the vote shouldn't count _ period, said County Commissioner Charles Martinez. "The rules are the rules," he said. "It's got to be the right way or no way at all."

The stark difference between how those and other counties handled ballots raised serious questions about whether Florida's election recount system violated the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which mandates that all voters receive equal protection under election laws.

But abstractions like these did not concern Gwen Chandler _ at least not on that Friday evening.

Her deputy had just gone on vacation. The county didn't have a computer specialist or anyone to reprogram the vote-counting computers. She couldn't get anyone from the state Division of Elections to answer the phone. She couldn't even join the rest of the country in watching the news on television: The Okeechobee County Courthouse did not have cable.

"Welcome to rural Florida," Chandler said ruefully.

She had missed the 4 p.m. announcement, 50 minutes earlier in Tallahassee. Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters could barely be heard over the joyous din of Gore supporters, many of whom expected their candidate to concede that day.

The justices had been forceful and direct: "Only by examining the contested ballots . . . can a meaningful and final determination in this election contest be made."

Clay Roberts, director of the state's Division of Elections, was watching on television. He quickly put up the first bulletin to county election supervisors on the division's Web site. It was brief, and not terribly specific. Essentially, it said: Stay tuned for details.

"My main concern I think at the time was everybody closing up their offices and going home," Roberts recalled.

The second advisory from the division went up in the early evening, after the division got a copy of the Florida Supreme Court's decision. It told supervisors to watch for e-mails and faxes for further instruction. It said stay tuned to C-SPAN, CNN and MSNBC.

In Tampa, Hillsborough County Supervisor Pam Iorio was in her car when she caught the first whiff of what was to come.

"I just turned on NPR, and I heard the tail end of it. I thought they were referring to the Miami-Dade situation. As soon as I stepped in the door, the phone was ringing. It was Channel 13 . . . It was just wild. Within an hour, I had all four TV stations at my house."

Back in Tallahassee, a game of judicial hot potato was under way. The Supreme Court had ordered the Leon County Circuit Court to administer the recount. But shortly before 7 p.m., Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls recused himself because it was his ruling that the Supreme Court overturned. Circuit Judge Nikki Clark was next in line, but she declined to take the case. The job fell to Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, the mild-mannered jurist who already had presided over two post-election cases.

By 8 p.m., 29 lawyers had gathered in Lewis' courtroom for a hearing on how to proceed. CNN carried it live.

It was easy to see which way the momentum had swung. The Bush side appeared somber and weary. The Gore forces were jovial, energized and intent on starting the recount as quickly as possible.

"We think that hours are going to make a difference here _ minutes may make a difference here," said Gore lawyer David Boies.

But Bush lawyer Phil Beck threw up a web of problems:

He said there were no detailed statewide standards for manually counting ballots, just an "amorphous" one that enabled counties to create their own varying standards. It was a huge legal problem, Beck said.

What's more, he said, the judge could not create a new standard at the last minute, lest even more legal questions arise.

He predicted _ accurately, it turned out _ that counties would have trouble finding undervoted ballots amid thousands of other ballots. Most counties had never sorted them that way.

The process was "fraught with peril," Beck said. "It can't possibly result in anything that's meaningful and helpful, and all it's going to do is result in a constitutional crisis."

Indeed, the issues were devilishly complex, a fact foreshadowed by Florida Supreme Court Justice Major B. Harding, who said in his dissent that a recount done in haste would "come at the expense of accuracy and it would be difficult to put any faith or credibility in a vote total achieved under such chaotic conditions."

Judge Lewis adjourned to think it over. He returned to the bench at 11:30 p.m.

He said the recount would start early the next morning.

He told counties to report to him as soon as possible about how they planned to conduct it.

As for the 9,000 Miami-Dade ballots that had been trucked to Tallahassee the previous week, Lewis ordered them to be taken to the Leon County Public Library, where eight local judges would count them.

Lewis said the Florida Supreme Court's general standard for counting votes would prevail, meaning canvassing boards would have to determine on their own what each voter intended. The Republicans had said it would never fly, but Lewis determined it would have to do.

He ordered the counting to be done by 2 p.m. Sunday.

In the process he had given out the courthouse fax number on national TV, and soon the court administrator was receiving cartoons and letters of suggestion from the public.

When Lewis' hearing adjourned near midnight, Bush's lawyers stalked out of the courthouse, a blur of briefcases, overcoats and dour faces. Already weary from weeks of battle, they faced another long night of writing legal briefs. Said one of them, George J. Terwilliger III: "It's exactly the kind of chaotic, confusing, standardless situation that we predicted to the U.S. Supreme Court would occur."

While Lewis was holding court in Tallahassee, the elections supervisor in the Panhandle county of Okaloosa was scrambling late Friday to deal with the pace of events. Pat Hollarn needed a judge to serve on the canvassing board.

The regular judge was in Atlanta to finish treatment for prostate cancer. His replacement, a brigadier general in the U.S. Army Reserve, was in Miami for reserve activities. Next up was an administrative judge, who was less than enthused about missing his Saturday morning golf game.

"I said, "You can bring your golf clubs, but get on over here,' " said Hollarn, who built a reputation for candor in her 12 years as supervisor. "He's somebody I know fairly well and I'm a lot older than him so I can talk to him that way."

Meanwhile, the judge in Miami had grabbed a flight and made it back to Okaloosa by midnight Friday.

Others were taking flight as well. For weeks, the Democratic and Republican parties had been flying workers into Florida to help with recounts in isolated counties. But now, with the whole state in play, they needed reinforcements to witness the counting.

Democrats in Washington, D.C., filled two small planes and were dropped off before dawn Saturday in Jacksonville, Orlando and Tallahassee.

At 7 a.m. Saturday, Judge Lewis wrote the order asking counties to tell him how they planned to proceed.

Did he think it would go smoothly?

"I really didn't know. That Saturday, I got responses from everybody and they didn't seem to show any problems with anyone finishing."

The exception was Duval County, where officials grimly reported their system wasn't set up properly and they didn't have the software necessary to do the recount.

Just before 3 p.m., CNN carried a report that the U.S. Supreme Court had halted the recount.

A Republican operative yelled, "Yessssss!" outside the Leon County Library. Then he snapped shut his cell phone and ran to tell others.

But it couldn't be confirmed.

A lawyer representing the GOP burst into the library and demanded the judges stop counting. They didn't.

"He was very rude," groused Terre Cass, the court administrator.

In his Tallahassee chambers, Judge Lewis was making calls to get official word.

"I tried to have that verified through the Florida Supreme Court," Lewis said. "I couldn't get anybody to give me that information."

He wasn't going to issue an order to stop the recount based on a CNN report, he said. "I need something official."

Eventually, someone dropped off a copy of the stay on a table outside his office. He wrote the order, telling the counties to stop counting.

"I asked my staff to give it to everybody," Lewis said.

Then, he went home.

Reflecting recently on the recount, Lewis noted that Florida's 67 counties have a variety of elections systems and different ways of using them. "My observation always has been that if equal protection is a problem in how you determine the intent of the voter, then the whole election should be thrown out," he said. "That didn't seem to bother the Supreme Court."

That Saturday afternoon, as word spread through the state by fax machine, a sheriff's vehicle containing Monroe County's ballots was still en route from Marathon Key to Key West. Officials there never got a chance to sort the ballots, much less count them.

The same was true in Duval and Citrus.

And in Pinellas County, where officials were just hitting their stride, County Commissioner Bob Stewart remarked, "We were just figuring out how to count the damn things."

The eight judges in Tallahassee had counted 40 percent of the Miami-Dade ballots before stopping. Now, as those judges left for home, a gleeful crowd of Republicans was chanting to any Democrat within earshot: "You were wrong; we were right!"

In Okaloosa, the sorting process had been going well for supervisor Hollarn, who put crime scene tape around the counting area and threatened observers within an inch of their lives not to cross it.

Then, a cell phone rang. It belonged to a Republican observer, who yelled, "Stop the counting!"

"I said I had no idea who he was, and I didn't take orders from him," Hollarn said.

He was shouting objections at the court reporter and the judge. Hollarn told a deputy to remove him.

Within moments, a phone in the warehouse rang. It was Clay Roberts, the state division of elections chief.

"He said, "You have to stop.' I said, "Well, Clay, you know better. I don't have to respond to that.' He said, "I suggest you stop.' "

Hollarn and the canvassing board agreed: They were not going to stop until they received written notice of the court decision. The sorters were down to one missing ballot. Aware of what was going on, they worked furiously.

"Just then, somebody shouted, "I found it!' " Hollarn said. "And then the fax lit up and there was the order to stop."

And they did.

"We never did count them. It was over. Period."