Election officials in heavily Democratic Palm Beach Countybegan a hand recount of more than 430,000 ballots last night after the FloridaSupreme Court said the county could proceed with a tally that Vice PresidentAl Gore believes will prove that he received more votes in Florida than TexasGov. George W. Bush.
The court's interim ruling was a setback to Bush, as well as to hiscampaign co-chair in the state, Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary ofstate, who has said that only votes tabulated by last Tuesday should count.Harris had told Palm Beach County that it could conduct a hand recount only ifit could prove that its vote-tallying machines had malfunctioned.
But the more critical ruling should come this morning, when a state circuitjudge in Tallahassee will say whether Harris overstepped her authority onWednesday, when she declared that she would not include any results of handcounts in the state's final vote tally. The winner of Florida's 25 electoralvotes would almost certainly become president.
Harris said she would officially certify the Florida election resultstomorrow, after about 2,000 overseas absentee ballots are counted.
Confident that those overseas ballots will expand the governor'srazor-thin, 300-vote official lead in Florida, the Bush campaign did its bestyesterday to reinforce Harris' contention that tomorrow's tally would be finaland that the results of the hand counts won't be included.
To that end, Bush's campaign chairman, Don Evans, said the Texas governorwould not seek a recount in Iowa, where Gore prevailed by only 4,047 votes.The state's seven electoral votes would likely make no difference in decidingwho will be the 43rd president of the United States. But Evans tried to makeBush's actions in Iowa a lesson for Gore - and the nation.
"Both sides waged vigorous campaigns in Iowa," Evans said. "The results areexceptionally close, but Governor Bush believes the time has arrived for ournation to begin the process of moving forward.
"A concluding deadline arrives tomorrow night at midnight in Florida, asthe final votes come in from the overseas ballots," Evans continued. "Oncethese votes are counted, we will know the final result of Florida's electionand the nation's election. Win or lose, this election will be over."
The slender margin in Iowa is actually not that comparable to the minusculegap in Florida. Gore defeated Bush by three-tenths of 1 percent in Iowa,whereas Bush's 300-vote edge in Florida amounts to a lead of just fiveone-thousandths of 1 percent. Were the margin in Florida comparable to that inIowa, Bush's lead in the Sunshine State would be more than 18,000 votes.
And the momentum may be in Gore's favor - at least temporarily. A handrecount of 588,000 ballots began yesterday in Broward County. And with 86 outof 609 precincts completed, the vice president had picked up 21 votes. At thatrate, Gore could pick up more than 100 votes - not enough to swing theelection but, Gore aides hope, enough to maintain public doubts that Bushactually won Florida.
Gore aides said yesterday that they never expected to gain more than 100votes in Broward. But based on the results of a sample hand count in PalmBeach County, those aides say, the vice president could gain as many as 2,000votes there in a recount that officials said could take up to six days.
That is because the county's "butterfly ballot" - on which Gore's nameappeared nearly side by side with Reform Party candidate Patrick J. Buchanan's- may have prompted some voters to indicate their choice in novel ways, suchas circling their candidate or writing in a name by hand. Such ballots mighthave been invalidated in the machine counts but perhaps would be accepted inthe hand count as votes for Gore.
"Palm Beach has always had the numbers," a senior Gore campaign aide saidyesterday.
Gore campaign attorneys insisted that the Florida Supreme Court rulingcould be the first step toward Gore's capturing the state. If Harris ispresented with actual recounts, and rejects them, the Gore campaign would seeka court order to include the new numbers in Florida's final count.
David Boies, a lawyer for Gore, asserted that the Florida Supreme Court,whose members were all appointed by Democratic governors, appeared to indicatethat the recounts should be considered in the final tally.
"I think it's very unlikely that the Florida Supreme Court would havedirected that these recounts go forward if all they meant to do was topreserve the votes for history," Boies said.
But Bush campaign officials dismissed the ruling's significance, sayingthat the Florida Supreme Court had not ruled on the merits of Harris' argumentagainst the legitimacy of hand counts. It simply let the hand counts goforward.
"Now we will have some counting, that's true," allowed former Secretary ofState James A. Baker III, who is Bush's point man in Florida. "But I don'tthink you can characterize it as a setback."
Harris, who campaigned for Bush, is still expected to certify a Bushvictory on Saturday, giving him the state's 25 electoral votes, and possiblythe White House.
But Gore's legal advisers are still hoping that Judge Terry P. Lewis ofLeon County Circuit Court will order Harris to consider the hand recounts - orat least postpone the certification of Florida's election results. Short ofthat, they believe that under Florida law, they have authority to challengeelection results even after they are certified.
"The only recourse that the Gore-Lieberman campaign has to achieve a justresult to this election is to continue litigation, which is unfortunate andunnecessary," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Gore's running mate, told ABC's "GoodMorning America" yesterday.
They hope that a hand recount will bolster their position, both in thecourts and with the American people. Lieberman appealed directly to the publicyesterday in a series of television appearances.
"In my heart of hearts, I know what everyone knows, which is that Al Goreand I won the popular vote," Lieberman said. "I honestly believe that if everyvote cast in Florida was counted Al Gore would have won Florida, would winFlorida, by thousands of votes."
But Bush aides were firm in their refusal to accept the validity of handrecounts. They pointed to allegations that Democratic Party officials in PalmBeach and Broward counties were manhandling ballots and possibly producingGore votes by dislodging the tiny punch-card tabs known as chads.
"Last night in Broward County, as these ballots were passed from hand tohand, 78 pieces of chad were dislodged from the very ballots that were beingcounted," Evans said. "How can a manual recount be accurate when the ballotsthemselves are changing before our very eyes?"
In Lewis' courtroom yesterday, Bush's lawyers contended that Harris wassimply following Florida law when she declared that Tuesday was thehard-and-fast deadline for certifying county vote totals. And lawyers for thesecretary of state continued to insist that hand recounts could be conductedonly in the case of a failure of machine-counting equipment.
Otherwise, the "recount's only purpose would be to allocate additionalvotes to certain candidates," the secretary of state's lawyers contended in acourt filing.
Gore's lawyers chose to make their case on loftier grounds - the legitimacyof the next president.
"Whatever happens in this court and every other court in this country, theballots cast in Florida will be counted - historians will count them," Gorecourt documents maintained. "The tragedy for our democracy will be if thecourt reveals that on Jan. 20, 2001, the United States swore in the wrongcandidate because the secretary of state stopped local canvassing boards fromcounting votes."
And Gore aides were well aware that they were racing against time.
"Each passing minute is critical," the Gore court filing stated.
After the Florida Supreme Court's ruling, William M. Daley, Gore's campaignchairman, implored county canvassers to "finish as fast as humanly possible."