Judge denies new vote in Palm Beach

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - A handful of voters calling for a do-over of the presidential election in Palm Beach County because they said they were confused by the butterfly ballot won't get a second shot at Election Day.

In a 17-page order yesterday, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Jorge Labarga said the U.S. Constitution prohibits him from calling a new election, causing him to cancel a hearing on the merits of several complaints seeking one. He had warned the voters last week: "If I rule against you, it will probably be the most difficult decision I have to make."

About 19,000 votes were tossed out by voting machines because more than one presidential candidate was picked. In addition, 3,500 votes were cast for Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, many by voters who believed they were choosing Vice President Al Gore.

Henry Handler, who represents three confused voters, said he has filed an appeal.

Most legal eyes were fixed yesterday on Tallahassee and arguments before the Florida Supreme Court, where lawyers for each candidate argued over recounts and whether new votes should be included when tallying whether Gore or Texas Gov. George W. Bush should get the state's 25 electoral votes.

But this somewhat stealth issue before Labarga could have changed everything. Five separate lawsuits asked him to call for a new election in Palm Beach County.

Handler said that a new election would be the only possible way to fix what has happened and divine the true intent of the county's voters. "There is very little else that can occur," he said.

The butterfly ballot - which listed presidential candidates on two facing pages, with an arrow pointing to a corresponding punch hole in the center - was both illegal and confusing, Handler said. His clients wanted to vote for Gore but may have accidentally voted for Buchanan.

Even Buchanan acknowledged that he ordinarily would not have polled so many votes in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County, with its large Jewish population. His total was four times higher than the next highest county vote total he received in the state.

Labarga clearly felt the weight of the decision he was being asked to make, calling it "unprecedented."

There have been revotes in the past, including in Palm Beach, but Labarga pointed out in his ruling that there has never been a revote for the presidency because "our forefathers included clear and unambiguous language in the Constitution of the United States which require that Presidential 'electors' be elected on the same day throughout the United States."

Gary Dunkel, a West Palm Beach attorney for the Bush campaign, praised the ruling and the speed with which it was made.

"It appears clear to him you can't have a federal election in Palm Beach County separate and apart from the rest of the country," he said.

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