Florida's elections chief, after omitting new votesfrom Palm Beach County because a hand recount wasn't finished by yesterday's 5p.m. deadline, declared Texas Gov. George W. Bush the winner of the state'sheatedly contested presidential race and its vital 25 electoral votes - enoughto give him the presidency.
Secretary of State Katherine Harris, co-chairwoman of Bush's Floridacampaign, joined the two other members of the Republican-controlled statecanvassing board in announcing the victory for Bush about 7:30 p.m. yesterday.
That was less than a half-hour after Palm Beach belatedly finished itscount, adding 200 votes to Vice President Al Gore's column. In the officialtabulation, with nearly 6 million ballots counted, Bush received 2,912,790votes to Gore's 2,912,253 - a 537-vote difference.
Over cheers heard from outside the state Capitol, Harris said, "On behalfof the state elections canvassing commission ... I hereby declare George W.Bush the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes for the president of theUnited States."
About two hours later, Bush claimed the presidency in a speech in Austin,Texas.
"I wish to point out that our American democracy has triumphed once again,"said Harris, who has been sued in court, attacked by political allies of Goreand ridiculed on late-night television. "This is a victory for which we canall take a great deal of pride and comfort. The true winner is the rule oflaw. Thank you and may God bless America."
As Harris read out the vote, televised live from the Capitol, a crowd ofBush supporters gathered in the courtyard outside cheered loudly. Palm BeachCounty Judge Charles Burton described Harris' action as a "slap in the face"to those who had been recounting 466,000 ballots, and Democrats, led by Gore'srunning mate, Joseph I. Lieberman, said they would go to court to overturn it.
The Democrats' legal challenge, as provided for in state law, will attackvote tabulations in Palm Beach and two other Florida counties, most cruciallyin Miami-Dade County, where machines recorded 10,750 ballots with no vote forpresident out of 654,000 cast. Miami canvassers, saying they could not meetyesterday's deadline, aborted their count at midweek, after finding 157 newGore votes. Democrats will also challenge Nassau County's refusal to include51 additional Gore votes, found in a machine recount, in their finaltabulations.
The Democrats' plan to seek legal action will keep the vote controversyalive as lawyers for both Gore and Bush prepare for Friday's hearing by theU.S. Supreme Court that will decide whether the Florida Supreme Court went toofar in permitting manual recounts and enjoining Harris from certifying theelection Nov. 14, as she wanted to do. The state high court had set lastnight's deadline in a ruling Tuesday.
David Boies, the New York lawyer who heads Gore's legal team on therecount, reminded the public that Gore won the popular vote across the countryby some 300,000 votes "no matter what happens."
But to change last night's outcome, the Gore challenge would have tosucceed in a trial court and two appellate courts by Dec. 12, when Floridamust name its electors.
"Vice President Gore has won the Electoral College, outside of Florida, nomatter what happens here," Boies said here yesterday afternoon. "It'scritically important that if, as we believe the case to be, Vice PresidentGore won the vote here in Florida, that that not be nullified because some ofthose are not counted."
"There's one thing that I am sure of, and that is both sides have enoughlegal talent to keep this tied up through Christmas," said Bob Crawford,Florida's agriculture commissioner, who signed the certification document withHarris as a member of the state Canvassing Commission. "But one thing thelawyers can't do for us and one thing the courts can't do for us: They can'tbring this country together again."
Harris announced the vote totals last night after rejecting an appeal byPalm Beach, a populous and predominantly Democratic area in South Florida, toextend the deadline.
Last night's vote certification was the third time since Election Day thatHarris has come before television cameras to announce the breakdown of theFlorida vote. The closeness of the race Nov. 7 led to a state-mandatedrecount, charges of voting irregularities, legal challenges, street protests,counterchallenges and demonstrations and a political war of words that hasdominated the airwaves and focused world attention on Florida.
The presidency of the United States hangs in the balance - and will remainso until the U.S. Supreme Court hears a challenge from the Bush camp to theruling by the Florida high court, which intervened in the election dispute atthe request of the Gore camp. The court ruled that Harris had overstepped herbounds Nov. 14 when she refused to accept manual recounts in a certificationissued that night.
In a decision considered a win for the Gore camp, the Florida courtsubsequently allowed the three Florida counties - Palm Beach, Broward andMiami-Dade - to recount by hand their Election Day ballots. But the high courtsaid the recounts must be finished by last night and the amended totalsforwarded to Harris' office in Tallahassee.
Gore was relying on those recounts to give him the votes he needed toovercome Bush's narrow, 930-vote lead in the tally of Election Day votes,absentee ballots and overseas ballots. But the Bush camp and its supportersfought back - in court and on the streets of South Florida.
From Tallahassee to Miami, Bush supporters, apparently taking their cuefrom the Bush camp, protested against the recounts and sought to stormelection offices in Miami just minutes before the canvassing board theredecided to suspend its recount.
Gore voters, encouraged by the vice president's team, argued just as loudlyfor a fair and accurate count.
Broward County finished their hand recount and met last night's deadline.Gore picked up 567 votes on Bush in a hand recount of 588,000 ballots.
Palm Beach pushed ahead with the laborious and timely process. Butyesterday afternoon, Burton telephoned and faxed a letter to Harris, askingfor an extension until 9 a.m. today. Harris refused to budge on the 5 p.m.deadline. About 2 1/2 hours later, Harris led the elections canvassing boardin announcing Bush the victor.
The Gore team's legal challenge of the state certification, to be filed inLeon County Circuit Court in Tallahassee, will be focused particularly oncompelling the Miami-Dade elections board to complete a hand recount of votesthat "was abandoned after a mob intimidated the canvassing board to reverse adecision - made just hours earlier - to complete the count," in documentshanded out at Boies' afternoon briefing.
They want the Palm Beach County manual revote to be included, even thoughit went beyond last night's deadline. They will also argue that:
The 10,000 ballots in Miami-Dade that could not be read by a machine "havenever been counted, not even once" and should be added to the total. Inaddition, 388 votes that had been manually counted (with a net gain of 156 forGore) should be included.
Nassau County's decision to throw out a mandated state recount of ballots,which cost Gore 51 votes, should be reversed.
About 1,000-2,000 ballots in Palm Beach county were "improperly rejected"by the canvassing board. They also will seek a judicial review of the countyboard's decision not to recount "indented" or dimpled ballots, which they sayis in violation of state law that requires the panel to determine a voter'sintent.
Former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III, speaking for Bush inTallahassee, attacked the plan for a protracted legal contest last night andsuggested, "At some point ... the lawyers must go home."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun