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latimes.com: Florida ballots will be counted -- regardless of court rulings

latimes.com MIAMI, Florida (Los Angeles Times) -- At a moment's notice, Millard N. Mayhall is ready to fly here from Michigan with two helpers to pore over the 10,700 disputed ballots in Miami-Dade County. He wants to do his own count.

Broward County home builder Tony Chiocca has filed a request to inspect dimples and hanging chads on ballots there. And in Palm Beach County, tabloid television shows, newspapers, public interest groups and ordinary citizens are lining up to examine punch cards, despite a warning from election officials that lookers will be charged $1,157 an hour to cover the costs of staff and security.

While judges in Tallahassee weigh the fate of the presidential election, dozens of people are invoking Florida's broad public access laws to guarantee that the most scrutinized --and well-traveled--ballots in U.S. history won't be mothballed just yet.

"Those ballots are going to be counted, either before or after the inauguration," said Miami attorney Richard J. Burton, who hopes to inspect the Miami-Dade votes as soon as they are trucked back from Tallahassee. "God forbid that the wrong man is in the White House."

Some of the public ballot inspection begins today, when a team of volunteers from Judicial Watch, a Washington-based public interest law firm, arrives at Broward's election headquarters in Fort Lauderdale. Several newspapers also have requested access today, according to election official David Beirne.

Many self-appointed ballot checkers want to see the so-called undervotes--punch cards where voting machines read no vote. Democrats contend that a manual check of those ballots would give Al Gore a victory over George W. Bush.

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton said his group has no intention of counting ballots, but does want to look at the undervotes to determine what standards the canvassing boards used in assigning votes. The group inspected 630 ballots last week in Palm Beach County before those ballots also were convoyed to Tallahassee, where a judge has ordered them held under guard.

But others, such as Mayhall, want to count votes. "I want to see who won," said Mayhall, 48, a civil attorney in Marshall, Mich., who says he has political ties. "I figured that me and a couple of others could segregate the undervotes into piles and do it in a couple of days."

One potential hole in Mayhall's plan to come up with a winner may be that neither he nor any other citizen can actually touch the ballots. Only election officials can do that.

David Leahy, Miami-Dade election supervisor, said he hopes to set up a group viewing to satisfy many of the 14 requests the county had received through Wednesday, although the mechanics still were uncertain.

"I don't want to go through this seven or eight times," Leahy said.

Chiocca, 42, said he doesn't know exactly what information he seeks, but is angered by the unending election ordeal. "There are so many double standards here," he said. "I just think laws were changed, some fix was in, and common sense is gone. Frankly, it's scary."

In the aftermath of the voting, election officials have been swamped with requests, not just for ballot access but also for copies of telephone logs, messages and e-mails of various government officials. Florida officials routinely comply with such requests, largely because of the state's sweeping laws that provide extensive public access to official records and government proceedings of all kinds.

But the postelection deluge of record requests has posed unique challenges, particularly in Miami-Dade County. "We've never even had a request to look at ballots before," said Gisela Salas, assistant election supervisor in Miami-Dade, during a break from running the copy machine. "Now everybody wants everything."

Palm Beach County officials said yet-uncounted requests to see ballots have filled three file folders.

In Broward County, Beirne said the "public information law is written so vaguely that it allows people to ask for correspondence, general reports on requests for new voting systems, anything.

"People can ask for whatever they want," said Beirne, who added that the county planned to charge $13 an hour for each employee busied by the examinations. "But unfortunately, this ties our hands. It'll take until February to comply."


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Thursday, December 7, 2000

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