Under a Florida court order, hand counters in Palm Beach County may use their discretion to interpret an impression on a paper ballot as a vote a decision seen as a victory for Al Gore in his frantic hunt for stray votes. But Gores wiggle room is shrinking all the same thanks to a decision by Miami-Dade County to stop its manual recount altogether and default to its certified vote.
Democrats hopes for harvesting any new Gore votes among Florida's "undervotes" and "dimpled chads" have come down to a handful of election officials in Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Two thousand Broward County ballots and more than 1,000 Palm Beach County ballots have been set aside because counting teams could not tell, or could not agree, what the voter intended.
Under the order of Circuit Court Judge Jorge LaBarga, a three-person panel will decide the most difficult Palm Beach cases by majority rule.
At a Wednesday hearing, Democrats and Republicans asked LaBarga to rule on what standards should apply to so-called "dimpled" ballots, where the voter has made an impression, but not separated a chad from the card.
In his order, LaBarga instructed the canvassing board to review any ballots where counting teams could not determine the voters intent.
His ruling effectively replaces a standard observed in the county since 1990 that required at least one corner of a chad be dislodged for the vote to count.
Democrats wanted the states highest court to create a uniform standard that would be implemented in all counties. But Tuesday night's ruling by the Florida Supreme Court was silent on the question of how to treat different kinds of markings and perforations on uncertain ballots.
Republicans have complained that human counters' attempts to divine the voters' intent by looking at the ballots are subjective. Wednesday afternoon in Austin, George W. Bush said the hand count process "invites human error and mischief."
A total of 462,000 votes were cast in Palm Beach County, where the canvassing board began recounting all ballots seven days ago. Judge Charles Burton, the head of the county's canvassing board, said the board expects to be finished with the recount late Wednesday, except for the stack of disputed ballots. On Tuesday, 1,979 ballots, dimpled and otherwise, joined that category.
Questioned in LaBargas courtroom by lawyers for both sides, Burton explained how the Palm Beach counters have ascertained the voter's intent when the chad was not separated from the ballot, and emphasized that they've tried to be consistent.
Burton said the Palm Beach counters were more inclined to consider a dimple in the presidential column if other votes further down the ticket were dimpled as well. "If they consistently had the problem, we're acknowledging that shows intent."
Except to the extent that LaBargas order gives Palm Beach leave to count the dimples, it shuld not change the vote counting and decision-making procedures described by Burton.
Burton submitted some dummy ballots he had created himself as examples of "some of the different things we've been seeing." LaBarga removed his glasses to examine them, and shook his head at the one which was punched, sort of, with a ball point pen, in honor of one voter who punched inky pinholes through the chads to mark his choices.
After working for seven straight days, Palm Beach counters are taking Thanksgiving off. In Broward, theyll be back at work starting at 9:00 a.m.