For officials, ruling ends day's chaos

By Glen Johnson, Globe Staff, 12/10/2000

ACKSONVILLE, Fla. - In a country based on the vote, in a state where the presidential election remained in doubt, in a county with a high number of discarded ballots, this is what Election 2000 boiled down to yesterday: Four county election officials huddled around a computer terminal, trying to find out what they should do.

''We're stopping right now to see if we should stop further,'' Judge Brent Shore said with a chuckle, just moments before he and his colleagues went into the computer room in the Jacksonville City Hall Annex. They logged onto the Internet, in search of a US Supreme Court decision they heard had ordered Florida to halt its latest round of ballot recounts.

The uncertainty of the moment captured the chaos of the day.

It began with the Duval County Canvassing Board considering whether to hand-inspect all 291,626 ballots cast locally to sort out so-called undervotes. Those are ballots with marks for some races, but not the marquee matchup of Election Day, the presidential contest between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. On Friday night, a Tallahassee judge had set a deadline of 2 p.m. today to complete the review of undervotes.

Realizing the hopelessness of meeting that deadline through a hand inspection, Shore and his fellow canvassing board members decided to consider using a custom computer and software flown in from Miami-Dade County yesterday morning. It was created to cull undervotes, so the board could then inspect them by hand to see if they contained marks indicating an effort to vote for either Bush or Gore.

Before agreeing to use the machine, the board held an impromptu hearing with Noel Poyntz to discuss how his invention worked. Under courtroom-style questioning in a 15th-floor City Council hearing room overlooking the St. John's River, the canvassing board heard Poyntz admit he had not checked his invention for accuracy.

It was an eyebrow-raising comment, given that it had been used two weeks earlier to sort out 9,000 undervotes in Miami-Dade. Unfazed, Poyntz declared to the board, ''I haven't been able to find any errors.''

As contradictory as Poyntz's two comments were, Shore and his colleagues decided to place their faith in the invention. They went downstairs to the computer room to see the machine calibrated for use with Duval County's punch-card ballots. They finished and had just sat down for a quick lunch of sandwiches and soft drinks when Shore's cell phone rang in the computer room.

It was the judge's wife, telling him the television networks were reporting that the US Supreme Court had issued its order halting Florida's recounts. Shore walked down the hall to deliver the news to lawyers representing Bush and Gore, before the board retreated behind the glass walls of the computer room to search online for the high court's decision.

Asked if he had ever witnessed such a scene, John Sasso, the Massachusetts Democrat serving as a Gore observer in Duval County, said wryly, ''I haven't - and neither has anybody else.''

For a short while yesterday, Duval County had become a focal point for Gore's challenge of Florida's election results.

Two weeks ago, the secretary of state declared Bush the winner of Florida's popular vote and, thus, recipient of its 25 electoral votes. They were enough to give him a majority in the Electoral College and the presidency. In a series of prior counts and recounts, Bush's margin of victory had been whittled to 537 votes.

On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court further reduced it to 154 votes as it ruled that all 67 county canvassing boards in the state had to go back and hand-count ballots that had been deemed undervotes on Election Day.

That cast a spotlight on Jacksonville and Duval County, located in Florida's northeastern corner. Home to military complexes and thousands of naval aviators, it is considered staunch Republican territory. On Election Day, it voted so, giving Bush a win over Gore by 58 percent to 41 percent.

An examination of the balloting showed that some 21,942 ballots countywide had ''overvotes,'' or more than one vote cast for a presidential candidate. In Florida, there were 10 presidential candidates on the ballot, and in Duval County, they were spread across two pages.

That perhaps led some voters to pick more than one candidate. Instructions from the county's Republican elections supervisor said plainly that people should ''vote all pages.''

Another 4,967 Duval County ballots were undervotes, carrying no clear distinction of a presidential choice. Of that tally, 1,413 undervotes were cast in predominantly black precincts that Gore otherwise carried with 90 percent of the vote.

US Representative Corrine Brown, a black Democrat who represents Jacksonville in Congress, argued that her constituents had been ''disenfranchised'' by a confusing ballot, antiquated voting machines, and unclear instructions and outright obstructionism by county election officials. All four members of the canvassing board, including elections supervisor John Stafford, are registered Republicans.

Yesterday, Brown was on a 6 a.m. flight from Washington to Jacksonville, eager to see the undervotes finally counted. She estimated Gore might pick up 500 votes in Duval County alone. During an in-flight interview, she marveled at the day before her.

''I've been to Haiti, South Africa, all over, to monitor elections. I never thought I'd get to do this in my hometown,'' the congresswoman said.

But after the US Supreme Court decision was released at about 2:30 p.m., Brown's mood soured. She was particularly upset to read the comments of Justice Antonin Scalia.

While the court scheduled arguments for tomorrow on Bush's appeal of the Florida Supreme Court decision, the conservative jurist wrote, ''It suffices to say that the issuance of the stay suggests that a majority of the court, while not deciding the issues presented, believe that the petitioner has a substantial probability of success.''

Brown said that if the court does rule for Bush, effectively guaranteeing he becomes the nation's 43d president, ''it will show they're trying to crown King George because he has not gotten the most votes.''