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If he had to preside over the harrowing presidential election recount all over again — and he flinches at the thought — Broward Circuit Judge Robert W. Lee says he would pretty much do it exactly the same way. Lee, 40, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., spoke at length for the first time about his experience as chairman of the county canvassing board at a Broward County Bar Association meeting last week. He firmly defended himself and his two fellow canvassing board members against charges that their aggressive handling of the manual recount was politically motivated. The board’s main concern wasn’t politics, he said, but rather the loss of precious time. “I thought, ‘If the [Florida] Supreme Court comes down and says we’re wrong, fine, we’ll stop the recount,” Lee told about 100 members of the association’s Young Lawyers Section. ” ‘But if the [Florida] Supreme Court says we’re right, we’ll know we’d have lost so many days [to complete the recount].’ “ It was Lee’s first public speech about his post-election experience. Lee was in private practice for 13 years at Fort Lauderdale’s Smith & Hiatt before Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles appointed him to the bench in 1997. Lee, who was a fill-in for a speaker who canceled, defended the board’s decision to forge ahead with a manual recount despite not receiving an explicit go-ahead by the state supreme court. History bore out the Broward canvassing board’s fears about time running out. Lee and his colleagues worked feverishly through the Thanksgiving holiday and completed their manual recount, while counterparts in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties missed the Supreme Court’s recount deadline of 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 26. Unlike the Palm Beach canvassing board, Lee’s board took no Thanksgiving Day break. Palm Beach’s canvassing board took almost two days off, while Miami-Dade officials shut down their recount in the face of Republican protests. Had the two counties completed their manual recounts — Broward’s recount alone shaved 567 votes from George W. Bush’s lead — Al Gore might have gained enough votes to deliver the presidency to him. Lee, a two-year veteran of the canvassing board, and his fellow board members were criticized by Republicans for pressing on with a recount that seemed likely to help Gore. (Broward Circuit Judge Robert Rosenberg, a Republican, joined Lee and Democratic Broward County Commissioner Suzanne Gunzburger on the board after Republican Jane Carroll, the Broward supervisor of elections, quit in the middle of the ballot controversy.) Ed Pozzuoli, former chairman of the Broward Republican Party and currently counsel for the Republican Party at the state and county levels, scoffs at the assertion that Broward’s speedy recount was not politically motivated. “The bottom line is that the board, after it completed the sample precinct count, initially voted 2-1 that a full manual recount was not required,” says Pozzuoli, a partner at Tripp Scott in Fort Lauderdale, who notes that Lee was one of the “no” votes. “Then, two days later, they changed their minds and said, ‘Not only do we need to have a full manual recount, we need to start this recount this afternoon.’ “ But the board — Lee, in particular — received widespread praise from media pundits and others for the efficiency with which Broward managed the recount. Lee took charge of the recount and, unlike his counterparts in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, he became famous — infamous in GOP quarters — for brooking no interference or delays from observers of either party or from the news media. “I think the board handled it excellently,” says Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward Democratic Party and an attorney in Plantation, Fla. “There’s no question in my mind that Lee was one of the few people who understood you have to act quickly because the political and judicial sands were shifting every hour,” Ceasar adds. “I never thought his actions were political in any way. He wanted to make sure that no voters were disenfranchised. In the end, Broward was the only county that did not disenfranchise voters.” Though his actions were much analyzed and debated, Lee remained mum during the recount process, turning away an onslaught of media requests for interviews. He later turned down many speaking engagements. “I made a decision from the very beginning that I was not talking to anybody until it was totally finished,” he said. “I screened every call, including from my mom. She let me know about that,” he quipped. But Lee offers no apologies for the way the board conducted the recount. He insists that it followed the law, a view seconded by Broward County Judge Robert F. Diaz, another Democrat and Chiles appointee, who introduced Lee at the meeting. Diaz said Lee always is meticulous and diligent in researching and following the law. “He knew what the law was, and he was going to follow the law no matter what,” Diaz said. “And I thought his persistence in getting the count done was necessary.” Lacking specific guidance from the statutes or courts, Lee said he relied on common sense in determining voter intent from ballots which initially were rejected due to a variety of chad-related infirmities. Unlike some canvassing board members in the three South Florida counties, he refused to use a magnifying glass to evaluate contested ballots. Instead, he said he inspected them with naked eyes — he doesn’t wear glasses or contact lenses — for one or two seconds. He invalidated a ballot if he could not readily discern the voter’s intent in that brief time. He debunks the mainly Republican argument that it was impossible to accurately determine voter intent through manual inspection. “I didn’t find it that difficult,” he said. According to Lee, neither did Gunzburger or Rosenberg, his colleagues on the canvassing board. Lee said the three were in complete agreement 80 percent of the time. He recalled just four ballots out of 10,000 where he reached a conclusion different from the other two. In those instances, Lee said, Gunzburger and Rosenberg found it so unusual that he was disagreeing with them that they asked for a second look at the contested ballot. In retrospect, Lee said he wished he had done more to help people around the country visualize the manual recount decision-making process, so they could see that there was nothing mysterious or fishy about it. “If I had to do this all over again — God, help me — I’d have had a cameraman over my shoulder so people could see what I saw,” Lee said. After the recount was over, Lee tried to put the experience behind him. That wasn’t easy. He was besieged with media interview requests and questions from colleagues in the legal profession. Surprisingly, given the passions aroused by the election controversy, he received very little hate mail. He got just 10 postal letters he described as “nasty,” and no e-mails — though his e-mail address is not published. By contrast, Gunzburger received more than 40,000 e-mails about the recount. Her e-mail address is publicly available. “People would say, ‘We don’t agree with what you did, but we like the way you did it,’ ” he said. Lee was amused to find himself treated like a pop culture idol. He received many written requests for his autograph and many self-addressed, stamped envelopes asking him to send signed photographs. Lee said he refused those requests. For the future, Lee said he’d like to see better training of voters, especially lamenting that the board had to invalidate 1,000 absentee ballots. Most were thrown out because of minor omissions, such as a missing home address. Some of these, he told the young lawyers, were from “names you know.” He’d also like to see election judges in the polling places be more aggressive in offering assistance to voters who express confusion about, or are having problems with, the mechanics of voting. Concerning the error-ridden punch-card voting equipment, which may well have cost Gore the election, Lee wants major changes. “The machines we use in Broward County are anachronistic,” he said. “They need to be scrapped.” One thing already has changed. By order of the Broward administrative Judge Jay Spechler, the duty of serving on the canvassing board will fall to the county’s weekly “relief judge” — the judge whose calendar is cleared in order to be on standby and cover scheduling emergencies. Lee said this was needed because there never was much incentive for judges to volunteer for the canvassing board. After the 2000 presidential election, “there’s truly no incentive to do it,” he added, drawing laughs. The most frequent question Lee is asked is whether Broward’s recount process was fair. Lee said he thinks it was very fair. But he refused to comment on the U.S. Supreme Court decision and the final result of the election, saying only: “Whether it was fair is not for me to say.”

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