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Sasso Lectures KSG Class on Florida Ballots

By Marc J. Ambinder, Crimson Staff Writer

John Sasso, whose job it is to make the bland more interesting, gave the Harvard class a warning:

"I've got to talk about some pretty dry procedures and terms and statistics," the Democratic media consultant said.

Fortunately, this was a Kennedy School of Government (KSG) class and not a College lecture. Political wonks don't snooze when they get the chance to quiz three men caught up in the ballot maelstrom of South Florida.

Yesterday, as lawyers for Vice President Al Gore '69 girded for what may be their final appeal before the Florida Supreme Court, Sasso and political consultants Charles "Chuck" M. Campion and lawyer Charles "Charley" Baker '80 gave the KSG students in Maxine Isaacs's Campaign 2000 course a veritable post-mortem.

Sasso passed around a handful of ballot cards--"not from Florida," he assured. Using a paper clip--the same he said was sent in the mail to absentee voters using punch cards--he urged his audience to vote. "Look at them, hold them up," he said, running his finger along the crisp side. "Do you see light?"

One student tried to punch a hole--twice--partially detaching the centerpiece. Two sides flapped like a screen door. Should the vote count?

"I'll try to be objective," Sasso said, as he began to explain what he thought of recount procedures. "I'm not in the political bunker [anymore]."

For weeks, he was at the center, serving as a top Democratic operative in Broward County, working with lawyers there to oversee manual recounts.

When he arrived, Sasso was told that there were problems with the machines, as Gore lawyers tried to demonstrate at the certification contest trial this weekend.

For example, he said, "we found a half dozen precincts where there were 20 to 25 dimples in a row.".

But he said the recount was "fair," at least in its scrupulousness. A "highly partisan" Republican judge on the canvassing board, Robert Rosenberg, ended up about two-thirds of the votes that the Democratic member thought had voted for Gore, Sasso said.

But, he acknowledged, perception of fairness is relative. For example, many Americans cast votes for candidates of both parties. Was it fair to give a dimpled Gore chad to Gore merely because the voter had selected other Democratic candidates?

"A lot of people are ticket-splitters," Sasso said.

Baker, a lawyer at the white-shoe Boston firm Hill and Barlow, laid out the Democrats' legal argument. The night of the election, he was in the Nashville "boiler room," as he called it, watching exit polls and coordinating with field operations in states.

Three states merited scrutiny. One was Florida. Reports of voter confusion in Palm Beach County were rampant, he said. When the first wave of exit polls were released about 1 p.m., Baker and his team began to map out strategy for the days ahead. (Published reports later revealed that a telemarketing firm hired by Democrats urged voters in the county to complain if they felt disenfranchised.)

As county canvassing boards thumbed through ballots the morning of Nov. 8, Baker helped to ensure that a Democratic lawyer and a field operative were present at every board in every county.

"In most of these counties, there wasn't a recount," he said. "Largely, [we knew] this was gonna be fought in four populated counties--Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Volusia."

And so it was. Baker knew that the allegation garnering the most sympathy--the butterfly ballots in Palm Beach--might make good television but wouldn't make good law.

Under Florida law, Gore had every right to contest the state's certification.

But the state standard is strict: absent evidence of fraud, he had to prove to a judge, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that ballot and counting irregularities had the potential to change the outcome of the election.

Yesterday, Judge N. Saunders Sauls ruled that Gore's lawyers, led by David Boies, had failed to meet the burden of proof.

Although Gore's trial attorneys have taken pains not to criticize the judge, Sasso was less reticent.

"I think he used the wrong legal standard," he said.

But he said the Gore team may have made a strategic mistake in limiting the number of witnesses they called.

"I think it goes without a doubt that the Gore side, by trying to base their case on two witnesses, ran the risk that they did not produce enough evidence to meet the predominance standard under Florida law," Baker said.

After the Florida State Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday, Nov. 21 that Secretary of State Katherine Harris had to include the results of manual recounts in her certification, Gore's ground operation was confident that they'd close the slim margin of victory that George W. Bush had obtained.

That confidence rested on several assumptions, one being that a full recount in Miami-Dade county would go their way, Campion said.

Campion's job was to serve as the Gore's campaign's connection to the Miami-Dade canvassing board, encamped in an office building in downtown Miami.

He saw his job as important.

Democratic and county estimates, he said, showed that nearly one in 60 votes in the county were so-called undervotes--either the machine didn't count them as having voted for president, or the voter didn't vote at all. That compared to a rate of barely one in 800 in nearby Manatee County.

And, he said, the undervotes tended to disenfranchise the poor and minorities. One in 11 African Americans, he said, had apparently not had their votes for president counted.

The next day, the Miami-Dade canvassing board prepared to begin their recounts. What happened next is disputed.

After the board moved to a closed office to try and figure out how to go about counting nearly 654,000 ballots, a team of Republican operatives mobilized and protested, bringing to nationwide television a portrait of popular protest over closed-door meetings.

Then the committee voted 3-0 to abandon the recounts. 10,750 undervotes would remain untouched.

Campion received an immediate cell phone call from Nasvhille.

"What's going on?" he recalls the Gore team asking. (Baker interrupted to say that the question probably wasn't put so politely).

David Leahy, the Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections and one of three members of the canvassing board, told The New York Times that day, "We simply can't get it done. There was this concern that we were not conducting an open, fair process."

"Basically, they didn't want to work Thanksgiving Day," is how Sasso sums up that argument.

A third possibility--"conjecture," at this point, Campion said--was that the politically powerful "Cuban-American community was able to put influence on board and on the mayor to, in effect, stop the process."

On Dec. 1, the Times revealed that the iconoclastic (but Democratic) Miami mayor, Alex Penelas, had been in contact with Leahy as many as three times a day.

"This story will come out," Campion said yesterday. "This important process just vanished into nowhere."

Campion estimates that a county recount might well have swung enough votes to Gore to give him the state.

Still, he acknowledged when pressed by a student questioner that the 19 percent of the recounting that was completed when the county decided to suspend the procedure covered mostly Democratic precincts--and that ballots from the heavily Republican precincts where Cuban-Americans lived had yet to be cast.

And that still wouldn't include the undervotes.

Of his opponents in the matter, the heavily-organized contingent of lawyers representing Bush's interests, Baker said he frowned upon their maneuvers.

"At every step of the process, they did everything they could to simply stop that exercise," he said of the manual recounts. "Their tactic was delay."

--Staff writer Marc J. Ambinder can be reached at ambinder@fas.harvard.edu.

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