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Lawyers in Recount Trial Conclude

December 3, 2000

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Al Gore’s bid to overturn George W. Bush’s certified Florida victory stretched into a second trial day, with a GOP expert on punch-ballot voting machines conceding Sunday that hand recounts the Democrat seeks were advisable ``in very close elections.″

John Ahmann, owner of a small election supply company in Napa, Calif., said under cross examination that he agreed manual recounts were wise in some elections, especially those decided by several votes.

An expert who made dozens of improvements to the design of the machines before selling them over the last four decades, Ahmann said recounts were the only way to identify valid votes that resulted in so-called hanging chads _ ballots pierced by tiny holes or dimples.

Democratic lawyer Steve Zack asked him how votes can be counted when hanging chads sometimes flatten back into a hole as they pass through computers making initial counts of the ballots.

``You need either reinspection or manual recounts where you have that situation, yes, you do, where you have a very close election,″ said the lanky Ahmann, now a Napa rancher.

The testimony came in the second day of a historic trial before Leon County Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls that could _ if Gore prevails _ help decide who wins Florida’s 25 electoral votes and the White House.

Gore’s Florida election contest asks for a hand recount of 14,000 disputed ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, votes the Democrats believe would help Gore overcome Bush’s 537-vote lead, certified last Sunday after the Florida Supreme Court extended a deadline.

Both sides rested their cases late in the day, after more than nine hours of testimony. Closing arguments were scheduled to go into the night.

Democrats, repeatedly rebuffed by the judge in attempts to get him to start recounting ballots before the conclusion of the trial, were again turned away, and the proceedings dragged into Sunday evening.

``The court must first find there is a legal basis for ordering a recount before ordering it and that’s what we’re in the process of doing,″ the judge said, a Democrat appointed by a Republican governor.

The trial has drawn the legal focus of both parties this weekend as the U.S. Supreme Court considers Friday oral arguments on Bush’s appeal of the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to extend a deadline, which allowed some hand recounts to trim Bush’s lead from 930 votes to 537.

The validity of the Florida ballots were left in doubt after computers rejected them as registering no vote for president.

Ahmann, before cross examination, appeared to be scoring points for Bush as he testified that a dimple _ or indentation _ easily could be produced by accident with a slight touch of the metal stylus.

``It’s quite possible you can dimple the ballot and have no intention of voting,″ he said, adding, ``if you just touch it, you haven’t voted.″

William J. Rohloff, a Fort Lauderdale voter, was called by the Bush side to testify that he might have indented his ballot when he didn’t mean to. He said he put the punching device ``over the name of one of the candidates and I decided I just didn’t want to cast the vote.″

He said he wouldn’t want his vote counted either way. ``I don’t believe, especially on my ballot, that anyone can interpret my intent.″

Thomas Spencer, a GOP election lawyer and observer in Miami-Dade, said the 20 percent of precincts recounted were overwhelmingly Democratic and skewed the basis on which Gore seeks a hand recount of some 9,000 ballots on which no presidential vote was registered.

Also called by Bush lawyers, Thomas Spargo of Albany, N.Y., said the ballots in Miami-Dade were ``subjected to a lot of mishandling.″ Gore’s lawyers tried to get that stricken from the record, but the judge refused.

Gore lawyer Kendall Coffey questioned Spargo about his role in GOP demonstrations at the Miami-Dade canvassing board on Nov. 22, a display Democrats claim intimidated the counters and was a factor in their decision to stop. The board chairman has said it was not a factor.

Coffey displayed a photograph of Spargo among the demonstrators.

Spargo played down the episode. ``There was some, if you will, chanting,″ he said when Judge Sauls asked him what was going on that day.

He said the chanting was to protest that the canvassers were excluding Republicans and the media from their proceedings.

Spargo said there was nothing approaching a riot. ``There was no fighting, there was no roughhousing,″ he said.

Irv Terrell, a lawyer for Bush, asked the judge to exclude the Miami-Dade ballots on the grounds they had been handled so much that they were no longer reliable.

He said the ballots went through ``all kinds of reshuffling″ during at least three recounts and that lawyers for Gore had failed to call any witnesses that would prove the ballots were not tainted. The judge did not immediately rule on the request.

The Democrats rested their case Saturday after calling two witnesses, including Yale University statistician Nicolas Hengartner, who testified that punch card ballot machines proved far less reliable than optical scanner voting machines in the November election.

The Republicans called their own statistician Sunday, who disputed the estimate by Democrats that counting some 9,000 Miami-Dade ballots would produce at least 2,000 additional votes in the largely Democratic county.

Statistician Laurentius Marais of Novato, Ca. called it a ``false premise.″ Marais said the theory isn’t valid because the recounted sample precincts were heavily Democratic, not typical of the rest of the county.

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