|NMU||FLORIDA||Freedom of Information||Nov 30, 2000|
State law allows public to inspect ballots in presidential race
- Newspapers have already requested access to presidential ballots cast in some counties, but pending litigation will delay public access while the courts grapple with deciding which ballots to count.
In the ongoing Florida presidential ballot controversy, requests for access to the sheets of paper at the center of the debate have poured in to Florida election officials. As a political watchdog group and one member of the Democratic Party found out, ballots are public records, although inspecting them is subject to some limitations.
On Nov. 21, Palm Beach County Circuit Court Judge Jorge Labarga granted Judicial Watch the right to inspect Palm Beach county ballots. However, he later rejected the group’s request to continue counting ballots after Leon County Circuit Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls ordered on Nov. 29 that the ballots be transferred to Tallahassee.
Judicial Watch is not alone in its desire to inspect the ballots. The Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times and Los Angeles Times have already filed requests to inspect ballots.
Under state law, election officials should grant inspection to ballot requests, according to Sandra Chance, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.
“The way the law works in Florida is that everything is a public record, unless it is exempt, and there is no exemption for ballots,” Chance said. “Ballots are public records.”
However, the law restricts public inspection. Individuals or groups may visually inspect ballots and may record the number of votes cast, but state law permits only the supervisor of elections or an employee to physically handle the ballots.
Furthermore Judge Sauls’ order to bring all of the Palm Beach and Miami-Dade presidential ballots to Tallahassee will delay public access while the votes are in use as evidence.
U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) relayed his concerns to Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) about the effect of a public recount after the election has been certified. A transcript of his telephone call was made available to news organizations. Gephardt, who is House Minority Leader, said:
“One of the things we found here, that I didn’t know, was that if these votes aren’t counted, under the Freedom of Information Act, somebody can come here, a professor, some other academic, and count these votes in the days ahead. So if we don’t find out who won and who had the most votes, we’re going to find out later. Wouldn’t it be a terrible thing for the country to find out a month or two months from now that you got the most votes, you already had the national popular vote by 300,000 votes in the country, how terrible would it be to find out you also had the most votes in Florida and should have won this election?”
Chance said a recount by the public would not change the election. “Notes or counts taken by individual groups do not constitute a recount of ballots for purposes of the Florida election code,” she said.
© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press