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Republicans, Democrats clash in Palm Beach county amid recount

WEST PALM BEACH, Florida (Reuters) -- Partisan tempers frayed on Saturday in the room where Palm Beach County was manually recounting more than 460,000 ballots that may be key to deciding the winner of the November 7 presidential election.

The county is trying to finish hand recounting before the nation's Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday, but the process was slowed Saturday by hundreds of questions about individual ballots and Republican allegations of irregularities.

The counting of the votes is taking place in a large amphitheater with 30 teams of four people. Each team has a Democratic counter, a Democratic observer, a Republican counter and a Republican observer.

Things went smoothly on Team Five until the swap of a Republican observer, according to a joint press pool report filed by Bloomberg News Service and the Sun-Sentinel.

The new Republican observer, a thin, dark-haired youngish man, criticized the Democrat's ballot handling several times and finally said: "You're doing it again. One at a time."

Then he shot up from his seat and raised his hand in the air to make a formal objection: "She's picking up two ballots at a time, calling them out like it's only one."

"You know that's not the truth," replied the Democrat. "You are not truthful. That's a lie."

Sheriff's deputies, county officials and others got to the table quickly. The Republican observer was switched with another Republican and things calmed down.

Outside, the Bush campaign presented a different Republican observer who said he had seen irregularities.

Jim Williams, who identified himself as a regional sales manager for a medical finance company, said his team had resumed its counting of a large precinct Saturday morning.

Before starting, the team double-checked its work from the night before and found some Bush ballots in the Gore pile.

"The girl held them up to the light," Williams said of the woman who aligned the ballot cards so that light could shine through. No light came through. He said that officials put the ballots back in a box, meaning they will have to be recounted.

In Austin, the Bush campaign's allies alleged there were serious irregularities in the manual recount of presidential votes in Florida and said they had "clear and compelling evidence" of distortion and sabotage.

The count in Palm Beach County is aimed at picking up votes missed by the flawed Votomatic punch card system, which the county had been advised to abandon years ago. It held on to the system because of cost.

Democrats believe manual recounts of 1.7 million ballots in Florida's three most populous counties, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, could yield enough votes to swing the White House to Vice President Al Gore. Bush leads by 930 votes in the latest unofficial total.

The hand count in Palm Beach County will include an examination of 10,311 ballots that registered blank on the vote for president when they were run through a machine. That is where Democrats hope to pick up Gore votes.

Whatever the merits of a hand count, it fails to deal with complaints about the "butterfly" ballots.

The ballot design has prompted a thicket of court challenges from people who want a re-run of the election in Palm Beach County, saying the design led them to vote for the wrong candidate.

County Circuit Court Judge Jorge LaBarga is set to rule Monday, deciding whether he has authority under the law to order a new election in the county.

If he does have authority, then LaBarga will take testimony from voters and from Democratic statistical experts who say that there were unusual and suspect voting patterns. Republicans are expected to field their own experts.

Many people said they voted mistakenly for the Reform Party's Patrick Buchanan, who received 3,411 votes, including many in heavily Democratic precincts.

Typical of the problems was the experience of first-time voter Beverly Brown, who was born in Jamaica. She is not a party to any suit.

"I was having a little bit of trouble putting the card in and they helped me," said Brown, co-owner of the "Simply Delicious" Jamaican restaurant in a small shopping center. "I realized later that I didn't vote for Al Gore. I voted for Buchanan."

Another 19,147 ballots had more than one hole punched for president.

A sample of 144 of the double-punched ballots counted by the Canvassing Board found 80 punched for both Buchanan and Gore. Fewer than two dozen had any punch at all for George Bush. That sample came from three heavily Democratic precincts and one randomly chosen precinct.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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Saturday, November 18, 2000


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