A state judge flatly rejected yesterday Al Gore'schallenge of Florida election results, a ruling that reduces considerably thevice president's chance of proving that he and not George W. Bush won thepresidency.
The ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls means that about14,000 contested ballots won't be manually recounted, the only shot the vicepresident had of overcoming the Texas governor's 537-vote victory marginbefore states choose their electors Dec. 12.
Sauls, who issued his order from the bench shortly after 4:30 p.m., ruledthat Gore failed to prove his key claim -- that legal votes had been excludedfrom the Nov. 26 certified vote count. He said three local canvassing boardsat the heart of the controversy acted properly in decisions they maderegarding hand recounts.
"The court finds the plaintiffs have failed to carry the requisite burdenof proof," the judge concluded.
Sauls also ruled that a contest in a presidential election must be mountedstatewide, and not in selective counties as filed by the Gore legal team.
The judge's decision was hailed as a victory for the Texas governor and avindication of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' decision toexclude hand recounts that were conducted beyond Nov. 17, a decision that costGore precious votes from three largely Democratic counties in South Florida.
"The fact is Governor Bush and Secretary Cheney have won Florida," said BenGinsburg, a Bush campaign lawyer speaking for the Republicans' legal team.
In Texas, Bush spokesman Karen Hughes echoed the sentiments of the Bushlawyers, who hailed from Tallahassee, Chicago and Denver.
"Governor Bush was very pleased with the Florida court's thoughtful andcomprehensive decision," she said, adding that she believed Americans would"be comforted" by the ruling.
"They won. We lost. We're appealing," said David Boies, Gore's lead lawyer."This is going to be resolved by the Florida Supreme Court promptly, and whatI think is that that will be the end of the matter."
The appeal was lodged, Boies said, "so we can resolve once and for all whatthe right is of citizens to have their votes counted."
Both sides in this historic election contest said they would do just thatif they lost before Sauls. Boies, the New York lawyer who led the government'slegal case against Microsoft Corp., said the judge never considered the Goreteam's best evidence -- the ballots.
The fact that a judicial count never took place of the disputed ballots was"an error," said Boies. "You can't resolve that contest without looking at theballots."
About 1.1 million ballots from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties wereshipped to Tallahassee at the judge's order. They will remain under lock andkey at the Leon County Courthouse, Sauls ordered, until the appeals are heard.
Gore's uphill battle to get those votes hand counted is even steeper now.He must prove he's the winner before Dec. 12, when Florida chooses its 25electors. But Boies argued that there was still time to count the ballots"once a court rules that it must be done."
That court will have to be the Florida Supreme Court.
"This will be the end of the battle. ... Whoever wins the Florida SupremeCourt will accept that," Boies told a crowd of reporters and televisioncameras minutes after the judge ruled from his maroon leather swivel chair ina third-floor courtroom.
Several hours before Sauls read his decision, the U.S. Supreme Court askedthe Florida justices to rework the legal basis of their Nov. 21 ruling thatextended the period for Florida counties to manually recount election returns,which had boosted Gore's efforts to get every vote counted.
The court set a Nov. 26 deadline of 5 p.m., which stretched overThanksgiving weekend. The vice president still couldn't marshal the votesneeded to overcome Bush's margin, which has varied from about 930 -- thefigure after overseas ballots were counted -- to 300, the number Harriscertified Nov. 15.
Palm Beach County, where confusion over the so-called butterfly ballotstarted the election challenges, raced to finish a manual recount of itsballots but missed the deadline by 127 minutes. Miami-Dade County started,then stopped, a hand recount, claiming it couldn't get the work done by thestrict deadline set by the state Supreme Court.
When the final state certification was made, Gore trailed Bush by 537 votesout of nearly 6 million ballots counted. Convinced that he had really wonFlorida, Gore set out to get every ballot that was cast counted. His legalteam mounted a contest of the vote count. It alleged that Harris, theelections chief, had excluded legal votes in the state total and includedillegal ones.
The Gore camp challenged the strict standard used by Palm Beach'scanvassing board in hand-counting ballots. The board decided not to countballots that included dimpled or indented chads -- tiny bits of paper thatfail to dislodge from a ballot when a voter tried to mark his choice with astylus.
Gore also contested the Miami-Dade canvassing board's decision not toconduct a manual recount after it found that 10,750 ballots recorded nopresidential vote when run through election machines.
Lastly, it challenged a decision by the Nassau County elections board tosubstitute election night returns for a state-mandated manual recount, whichgave Gore more votes. The board made the switch after it realized that it hadforgotten to run about 216 ballots through the machine recount.
Sauls, a folksy 17-year veteran of the court, refused to consider ajudicial count of the ballots until he had an evidentiary hearing on thematter. Lawyers for the two candidates presented their evidence in a two-dayhearing that concluded Sunday night.
Gore's legal team put on only two witnesses -- an elections consultant anda statistician. It insisted that the ballots were the vice president's bestevidence. However, the judge never examined them.
The Bush legal team, armed with laptops and laser projections, called itsown statistician and election machine consultant. They called several otherwitnesses, including Republican operatives and voters who objected to arecount.
Their elections consultant, John Ahmann, provided the most exciting twistin the hearing when he offered testimony that helped the Gore cause. Ahmann,who designed the punch-card voting devices and later opened a company thatsold them, conceded that the best way to decide a close election is through amanual count.
But Ahmann's testimony did not sway Sauls.