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Public Eye

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With the presidential election hanging in the balance, Internet news sources have dramatically increased their role as providers of up-to-the-minute news.

From the first recount, which resulted in a narrowing of the Florida presidential election to a difference of some 300 votes, people followed the minute-by-minute news as if it really, well, counted.

The unfolding story in Florida even eclipsed the state's most recent attention grabber, the Elian Gonzalez saga. And, in terms of Internet news value, the election may have solidified the computer's role as desktop newspaper, television and radio.

That's true mainly because people at work, using their computers, could easily keep up with hour-by-hour developments as easily as those at home with televisions and radios blaring.

But as recent e-mail viruses have shown, one has to wonder if the even more decentralized system of e-mail may soon compete with newsgathering sites as a quick, though less orderly, means of disseminating unfiltered news.

One particularly interesting e-mail came from a plaintiff in the Palm Beach County class-action lawsuit that is seeking a new election. Democratic Palm Beach County resident Sherry Penn pointed out that viewers of most network news coverage still haven't been told the whole story about the so-called "butterfly ballots."

News programs have shown a ballot with large, black arrows clearly pointing from the candidates to the place where voters should punch. But the problem, writes Penn, is that the ballot shown by the media was a sample ballot sent to voters a month or so before the election.

"The image most often seen on national television is of the sample ballot, not of the ballot as it was seen in the voting booth by those of us voting," Penn wrote.

In the actual voting booth, the arrows didn't line up with the names, she said, adding that election workers did not allow voters who had voted mistakenly for the wrong candidate to fill out another ballot as required by Florida election law.

During the election, meanwhile, e-mails denouncing both candidates circulated widely. One such e-mail linked to a Web page where documents explaining George W. Bush's grounding from the Texas Air National Guard are posted (see www.talion.com).

What implications such communication holds will have is unclear, but it could serve to polarize an already divided electorate because people tend to receive e-mails from people they know and, perhaps, who share similar political leanings. If you're a lefty, you're going to tend to get e-mails from your left-leaning friends, and vice versa for the righties.

The other problem is that you also have no idea if the e-mails are credible. In the case of Sherry Penn, there is someone by that name listed in Palm Beach County, but the number is unpublished. An e-mail to Ms. Penn went unanswered before deadline.

All the hand-wringing from Republicans about hand recounts in Florida had me wondering about such a possibility here. Turns out that Colorado statutes don't specifically allow for manual recounts, says Colorado Deputy Secretary of State Bill Hobbs.

Recounts are triggered automatically when the difference is less than a half a percent of the highest vote-getter's tally -- or if a candidate requests a recount.

But those recounts, said Hobbs, are supposed to be based on the same method used during election day, he said. Still, according to some news sources, Hobbs' boss, Republican Secretary of State Donetta Davidson does have authority to use discretion and allow a manual recount if a statewide electronic recount shows the election tipping.

So imagine if the presidential election hung on Colorado's eight electoral votes and Al Gore won the state by a 300-vote margin after a mandatory recount.

And let's just say that several thousand votes -- particularly in the Republican controlled counties, including El Paso County -- were thrown out due to problems with the way ballots were punched or filled out.

(In fact, roughly 22,000 ballots in Colorado did not register a vote for president, according to a canvas of the polls in the Monday, Nov. 20, Rocky Mountain News. In El Paso County, there's a difference of 905 between total ballots collected and the number of ballots that didn't register a vote for president).

We all know that W doesn't believe in hand recounts (though he signed a law that encourages their use in Texas) and would never, ever ask for such an underhanded thing as a manual recount.

Might Republicans, including our own Republican secretary of state, be asking the state Supreme Court to allow a manual recount in order to determine what went wrong with the 22,000 missing presidential votes? Might Democrats cry foul in such a scenario?

Such a situation is unlikely. But before a winner is in fact declared in Florida, people on both sides of this election might ponder what it's like to be in their opponent's shoes before they spin conspiracy theories or whine about the election being "stolen" by their adversaries.

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