Equal protection law being challenged

By Raja Mishra, Globe Staff, 12/12/2000

roward County seriously considers all indented but not punched-out ballots - the now-famous ''dimpled'' chads - as votes, while Palm Beach County isn't so quick to accept them. Hillsborough County, meanwhile, ignores dimples altogether.

The different standards in the 11 Florida counties with punch card ballots clearly concerned members of the Supreme Court yesterday, with much of the argument centering on whether these varying approaches result in unfair treatment for some voters.

Though several other election law disputes and jurisdictional questions were expected to dominate, legal observers said the issue of vote counting standards emerged as perhaps the key question of the day.

''It looked to me like there were a significant number of justices who were focused on the equal protection issue,'' said Marc Perlin, associate dean and professor at the Suffolk University Law School.

The equal protection clause is part of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits states from denying rights to some citizens that it grants to others. Lawyers for George W. Bush argued that all votes should be counted in the same fashion to ensure they are given the same weight.

Bush's use of the 14th Amendment to challenge rules governing a federal election was a legal first, said constitutional scholars, making it difficult to discern how the justices will vote.

In fact, there is no real standard in most states, though the majority of them are hostile toward examining ballots with dimples. One of the few states that does is Texas, which decided in 1993 to consider them.

Most states only count ballots where the entire chad - the tiny square of paper voters push out to indicate their vote - is gone. But California will consider chads hanging by one corner. Ohio will consider those hanging by one or two corners. Washington state, on the other hand, simply leaves the decision to counties.

Florida law says that voter intent should be the guiding principle of vote counters. Lawyers for Al Gore argued yesterday that this means dimples should be carefully examined. This examination would take place in county canvassing boards, where three elected officals would scrutinize each ballot and vote on what they thought the voter's intent was. The majority would determine the vote.

Bush's attorneys said that, absent specific standards, these county boards could reach vastly different ideas of what constituted a vote.

Furthermore, they argued in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court on Sunday, that ''indentations and other impressions can result from improper or rough handling of ballots, voters who pick at the ballots and handle them while waiting in line, processing the ballots, removal of hanging chads, or flaws in the paper.''

The most well-known legal fight over dimpled chads and voting standards occured in Massachusetts in 1996.

After his Democratic primary loss to Philip W. Johnston in the 10th Congressional District, William D. Delahunt challenged the results. A Massachusetts court examined 956 ballots, most with dimpled chads, and awarded a decisive number of them to Delahunt. The Supreme Judicial Court, after the justices examined the ballots themselves, agreed.

Both courts said vote counters should be given leeway to try to figure out what each voter's intent was.

This is the same criterion the Florida Supreme Court upheld this weekend when it ordered a hand recount of votes. Yesterday, the US Supreme Court justices spent a surprising amount of time on the issue, especially three of the more moderate justices, David Souter, Stephen Breyer, and Anthony Kennedy.

''After the argument, based on the questions they asked, it's more likely equal protection will be the crucial issue here,'' said Heather Gerken, a professor at Harvard Law School.

Some legal observers noted that, though the equal protection argument was advanced by Bush's lawyer, Theodore Olson, it is usually championed by liberals.

They speculated that the more liberal justices may side with Bush, in an ironic turn of events.

But the usual cautions apply when gauging the Supreme Court, they warned. ''You can never tell what they're going to do,'' said Gerken.