Today's Papers

Manhandling the Vote

Once again, all the papers lead today with the latest in the presidential non-election: For the Washington Post and the New York Times, this was the lawsuit filed by the Bush camp in a Tallahassee federal court yesterday to block a manual recount of ballots in four Florida counties, including much-contested Palm Beach County, where the hand recount began yesterday. The suit will be heard on Monday morning by Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks, who, the papers all note, is a Clinton appointee. While also discussing the suit, the Los Angeles Times lead breaks the decision reached by Palm Beach County election officials only hours ago to order a manual recount of all the county’s over 460,000 ballots. After the limited manual recount yesterday of about 4,600 disputed ballots in Palm Beach County, Al Gore picked up 19 votes; if this change indicates a county-wide pattern, one member of the local election review board reasoned, the results of the election could change substantially. Democrats are hailing the order as a “major victory.”

To explain the Bush campaign’s legal action, the WP and NYT leads quote yesterday’s remarks from former Secretary of State James A. Baker, who decried the “potential for mischief” in a hand recount. Such a tally, he claimed, would be subjective and unfair, and may invite protracted bickering over the election results. The papers cite Baker’s assertion that “it is precisely for these reasons that over the years our democracy has moved increasingly from hand counting of votes to machine counting. Machines are neither Republicans nor Democrats, and therefore can be neither consciously or unconsciously biased.” In response, Warren Christopher, the recount overseer for the Gore camp, asserted that this procedure is fully compliant with Florida law, which allows any candidate to request a manual recount within 72 hours of the election. All the papers carry Christopher’s comment that Bush himself, in 1997, signed a Texas law authorizing a hand count in closely contested elections.

With the manual recount, the Democrats hope to validate some of the thousands of votes they claim were unjustly invalidated by the tabulating machines when voters incorrectly punched the holes in their ballots. To divine the intent of confused voters, Florida election officials will examine each ballot for signs of “partially punched holes” (NYT). The WP lead observes early on that the standards used by Florida election officials to determine voter intent changed significantly over the course of the day, a fact that seemed to confirm Mr. Baker’s suspicions about the process. Early in the day, counters were to evaluate the ballots by holding them up to the light like so much funny money–if light shined through the box next to the candidate’s name, he would be credited with a vote. Later, though, workers were instructed to scrap the “seeing daylight” standard for another, which stipulated that for a vote to be valid, at least one corner of the “chad” (the square in the ballot to be punched out) must be separated from the rest of the ballot.

The papers generally agree that the Bush campaign–in being the first to go to court–is on shaky ground in the escalating spin war, especially after chiding the Democrats’ litigious impulses in recent days. The NYT notes that the Dems are “delighted to have forced the Republicans to file a lawsuit first.” Now, the Democrats can turn the Republicans’ own rhetoric against them: It’s the Republicans, not Al Gore, who are out to thwart the will of the people and stall the noble (if plodding) machinery of Democracy.

An NYT front-pager reports that, as of late Friday night, Bush has taken the lead from Gore in New Mexico–where the counting is still incomplete–and now leads his opponent by only four votes. The gain came after election officials recovered 257 lost ballots and decided to manually recount 379 ballots rejected (neither consciously nor unconsciously) by electronic machines.

All the papers front the devastating fire that destroyed an Alpine train near Salzburg, Austria, yesterday and killed at least 150 people (the NYT and LAT say “at least 170”–many of them children and teen-agers headed up the Kitzsteinhorn mountain for a snowboarding competition at the summit.  The accident occurred around 9 a.m. as the cable car ascended the mountain, entered a 2-mile-long tunnel, stalled, and then was engulfed in flames. Some German-based U.S. military personnel are thought to be among the victims. The cause of fire will most likely remain unknown until wreckage can be examined today. Apparently, most of the passengers initially escaped the burning train but, “hampered by cumbersome skiwear,” were later killed by smoke in the tunnel (WP). The LAT reports that of the 180 passengers, only eight German skiers have been confirmed as survivors. According to the governor of Salzburg province, the accident is “completely incomprehensible because no faults have ever been found” with the cable car’s design or safety record (WP).

The WP off-lead details the Palm Beach County spokesman’s “graduate-level  seminar” on judging ballots by hand: the “chads” that would count as votes include the “hanging,” “swinging,” and “tri” chads (those pushed three-fourths out); invalid chads include the merely “pregnant” or “dimpled” variety. Today’s Papers is unsure whether it’s more disconcerting that America’s voting technology is unable to register the complex nuances of the “chad,” or that the word “chad” has now insinuated itself into the American political vocabulary.