Taking a page from a Perry Mason script, lawyers forVice President Al Gore turned an expert witness for Texas Gov. George W. Bushinto an ally in their fight for a hand count of contested Florida ballots thatcould overturn the presidential election.
"You need either a reinspection or a manual recount ... if you've got avery close election," John Ahmann, a mechanical engineer who helped designpunch-card voting systems and later sold them to counties in Florida,acknowledged under questioning from Gore attorney Stephen Zack.
The moment came on the closing day of a weekend hearing before Leon CountyCircuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls, who is considering Gore's challenge of a Nov.26 certified election vote count that proclaimed Bush the winner by a 537-votemargin. Gore contends that the certification excluded legal votes that, ifcounted, would change the outcome of the election here.
The judge will decide today whether to grant Gore's request for a handcount of about 14,000 ballots from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, whereabout 1.1 million ballots were cast, or to side with Bush, who says theballots have been counted enough and has laid claim to Florida's 25 electoralvotes - and the White House.
Sauls permitted three hours of closing arguments last night after presidingover about 18 hours of testimony. He promised to consider the matter overnightbefore issuing a ruling this morning.
If he finds for the Bush team, it could spell the end of Gore's monthlongstruggle to prove that he won the election Nov. 7. Both sides have said theywill appeal the court ruling to the Florida Supreme Court.
Ahmann, now a California rancher who wore a western bolo tie and aturquoise ring, testified at first that he "seriously" doubted that a voter"would be unable to push the chad through" because of a buildup of the tinybits of paper that voters poke out of ballots with a stylus. He said there wasplenty of room in the reservoir for chads to be distributed.
But, under questioning from a Gore attorney, Ahmann conceded that he hadmade a sworn statement in 1981 that voting machines in Miami-Dade County wereproblematic and could result in inaccurate counts. The Gore campaign is askingfor a hand count of 9,000 Miami-Dade ballots that registered no vote forpresident during a machine recount out of 654,000 cast.
In an Oct. 7, 1981, patent application for an improvement to this sort ofmachine, Ahmann had sworn that a problem with a plastic part "can and doescontribute to potentially unreadable votes because of hanging chads andunpunched cards." He also said then that a machine could be clogged withchads, which could cause problems.
Ahmann conceded that he made those statements and had previouslyrecommended that these voting machines be cleaned of chads after everyelection.
The Miami-Dade machines have not been cleaned in eight years, according totestimony.
In their closing arguments, lawyers for the two sides took opposingpositions on everything from voter error to the intent of the law.
David Boies, the lead Gore lawyer, argued that the law gave the judge broadauthority to act and he urged Sauls to exercise it. He said voting machinesmiss votes, and they did in this election, especially in 9,000 ballots inMiami-Dade County.
"So what needs to be done with those 9,000 ballots? We think the answer isobvious. They need to be counted, they need to be reviewed," he said.
Barry Richard, the lead Bush lawyer, told the judge that Gore had no claimto a recount. He said the lawyers offered no evidence of voter error,malfunctioning voting machines or abuse of discretion by local canvassingboards.
"What gives you a right to manual recount is not chad buildup. It is nothard rubber. It is the decision of the canvassing board," Richard said. "Wehave not one shred of evidence of any problems with any voting machines in anyprecincts. I kept waiting for a witness to come in here and say there was aproblem somewhere in this state of a magnitude to overturn the count, andthere is none."
Lawyers for Bush argue that Gore is not entitled to a hand count withoutproving that local elections chiefs abused their authority in tabulating thevotes. And they contended yesterday that the Gore team had failed to meet that"heavy burden."
Time is running out for Gore, who needs to prove his case before Dec. 12,when Florida chooses its representatives for the Dec. 18 meeting of theElectoral College. With Florida's 25 electoral votes, Bush would have 271 -one more than necessary to win the presidency.
Bush witnesses yesterday included a statistician for hire and twoRepublican election observers. The observers, both lawyers, charged thatemployees of the Miami-Dade canvassing board improperly handled ballots duringtheir shipment to Tallahassee.
The statistician, Laurentius Marais, of Novato, Calif., attackedprojections by the Gore team that as many 2,000 uncounted votes could beburied in 9,000 Miami-Dade ballots in which no vote for president wasregistered during a machine count.
Marais, a salaried consultant for William E. Wecker Associates, attacked aprojection by a Yale University statistician as "unreliable and inaccurate"because the review wasn't based on a precinct-by-precinct basis.
Ahmann's concessions about the performance of the voting machines gave theGore legal team something to crow about, and undercut the compelling testimonyhe had given on behalf of Bush.
"What he told the judge was let's count votes," Zack said.
The surprising discovery brought a bit of Perry Mason-like drama to theday's hearing. The weekend trial had been dominated by statistical analysesand counter-analyses, descriptions of dimpled ballots and mountains of chads,and questions over the ability to discern a voter's intent from theneedle-fine tip of a stylus.
Ahmann was brought to the stand by the Republicans to attack the Democrats'voting consultant, Kimball Brace, who testified that worn-out voting machineparts and a buildup of chads could interfere with a voter's intent.
The Bush team made much of the fact that Ahmann was a mechanical engineer,while Brace was a political science graduate. In the end, after the patentapplication was unearthed, their testimony dovetailed on one of the keyquestions of the hearing.
Ahmann's 1981 patent application was discovered by the Gore legal team inthe hour before the witness testified, and surprised the Bush attorneys aswell as Ahmann.
Midway through Ahmann's testimony, as often happened in the TV drama, afile folder was passed to Zack. The folder alerted him to the presence of thepatent application that caught Ahmann in a contradiction.
During the testimony, as Bush attorney Philip S. Beck asked for a copy ofthe patent document, Zack said he had only one copy of it, adding, "I got itfive minutes ago, to tell you the truth, and that's the way things are goinghere."
When asked later who gave him the tip, Zack responded playfully, "DellaStreet," the trusted assistant of Mason, who often came to the lawyer's aid inthe television drama starring Raymond Burr.
A lawyer in Zack's office dug up the patent application after Ahmannmentioned in a deposition Friday that he held several patents. The lawyer,Jennifer Altman, recognized its potential to turn this witness into a plus forGore.
With the affidavit in hand, Zack was able to wring concessions from Ahmann.
"In a close election, a hand recount is advisable, correct?" Zack askedhim.
"In very close elections, yes," Ahmann replied.