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Judge Rules on Florida Ballots

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A judge ruled Wednesday that Palm Beach County elections officials cannot arbitrarily toss out all ballots where the presidential choice was not completely punched.

Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga ruled that so-called ``dimpled chad'' — where the punchcard was not perforated, but was clearly indented — should be considered. But he said the county canvassing board may decide on individual ballots whether the dimple constitutes a vote.

``No vote is to be declared invalid or void if there was a clear intention of the voter,'' Labarga said after a 90-minute hearing in West Palm Beach.

Democrats sought the ruling hoping that thousands of previously rejected ballots could be counted.

``The judge granted exactly the relief which we sought,'' said Greg Barnhart, a lawyer for the Democrats. ``If they express a vote, the canvassing board needs to count that vote for whichever candidate it was cast. .... There was an inequity, and he corrected that.''

Earlier in the day, Republicans contended that Palm Beach County Commissioner Carol Roberts poked, twisted and manipulated ballots during a Saturday hand recount of ballots from four precincts. They asked her to step down from the election canvassing board.

She said Wednesday she had been ``fair and impartial'' and rejected the Republican demand to recuse herself.

``As a member of this board, I have been and continue to be fair,'' she said.

Meanwhile, Labarga disclosed Wednesday that he served on the county GOP executive committee and was a former president of the Cuba-American Republican Club. He also said he had attended rallies for GOP Gov. Jeb Bush, the brother of Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush, but said none of this would prevent him from fairly hearing election-related lawsuits.

Roberts approved several ballots displaying only minor indentations while refusing to count ballots with partially punched holes, according to a letter to the canvassing board from Republican lawyer James Higgins.

``The Republicans filed a written request that Ms. Roberts should recuse herself from the board. They are alleging she is biased,'' said County Judge Charles Burton, chairman of the three-member canvassing board.

He read a statement from Roberts Wednesday in which she said the ballots were recounted ``in full view of observers from both parties and cameras from all over the world,'' that all questions were decided by the three members of the board and that no complaints were voiced at the time.

The Palm Beach recount was stalled again Wednesday as board members waited for Labarga's ruling on which manner of indentations or partial punch-outs should count as votes.

Roberts voted against delaying the count again. Burton and Supervisor of Elections Theresa LePore voted in favor of the delay.

``We decided that we would wait because we need clear direction on what to do,'' Burton said.

``On the one hand, we're trying to move forward,'' he said. ``On the other, it almost seems to be musical courts. We're going from the next courtroom to the next courtroom to the next courtroom.''
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