Courts take on a pivotal role

Sun Reporter

In a dizzying day of developments, the battle over Florida'spresidential election count shifted yesterday to a Tallahassee courthouse,where a state judge is to rule this morning on whether several counties mustend their recount of votes by 5 p.m. today or continue their laborious handtallying of ballots.

The day's events determined that the results of the presidential electionwill be heavily shaped by the nation's court system. And for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore, yesterday's developments offeredpromise and peril.

As the 2000 election entered its sixth day in overtime, Gore won the firstlegal skirmish as a federal judge in Miami dismissed a lawsuit by Bush thatwas intended to halt hand counts of ballots in four heavily Democratic Floridacounties.

But the victory might have been rendered meaningless by an order byFlorida's Republican secretary of state, Katherine Harris, that all votecounts end by 5 p.m. today. Of the four counties undertaking manual recounts,one, Volusia, says it can meet that deadline.

Last night, officials of Broward County - one of the four - said a manualrecount in three precincts had turned up no major problems, and they decidedagainst extending a hand count to the entire county.

Gore campaign officials rushed to Tallahassee yesterday to add the vicepresident's name to Volusia County's lawsuit seeking an extension of the 5p.m. deadline. Volusia had filed suit before it was sure it could meet today'sdeadline, and the suit was soon joined by Palm Beach County. The lawsuit marksthe first time that Gore has taken legal action since Election Day failed toresolve who would become the 43rd president. And the move elicited the firstpublic comments from Gore since Wednesday.

"What is at stake is the integrity of our democracy, making sure that thewill of the American people is expressed and accurately received," Gore saidat the White House. "That is why I have believed from the start that whiletime is important, it is even more important that every vote is counted andcounted accurately."

In counseling patience, the vice president appeared to chide his rival forpushing on several fronts to halt the hand-counting of ballots.

"Look, I would not want to win the presidency by a few votes cast in erroror misinterpreted or not counted," Gore said, "and I don't think Governor Bushwants that either."

Gore's comments prompted Bush's communications director, Karen P. Hughes,to all but accuse the Democrats of trying to steal the election. "Today, thevice president essentially said we should ignore the law so that he couldoverturn the results of this election," Hughes said.

Yesterday's events raised the possibilities that the tortuous battle overFlorida recounts could end abruptly at 5 p.m. today or stretch on at leastthrough the weekend.

After meeting with senior Gore advisers yesterday morning, Harris, theFlorida secretary of state, emerged to declare that state law gave her nochoice but to demand that all the state's 67 counties report their electionresults this afternoon or risk having none of their ballots count.

Noting a balance between the right of each voter to have his ballot countedand the right of the public "to a clear, final result within a reasonabletime," Harris decreed that seven days is enough.

"The law unambiguously states when the process of counting and recountingthe votes cast on Election Day must end," Harris said. "For this election,that time is 5 p.m., Nov. 14."

Gore campaign operatives came out with guns blazing. Chris Lehane, Gore'sspokesman, dismissed Harris, an elected official, as "a crony of the Bushbrothers" who worked on Gov. Jeb Bush's gubernatorial campaign and George W.Bush's presidential run.

Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who is representing Gore'sinterests in Florida, declared Harris' deadline "both arbitrary andunreasonable." The state, he noted, will not be able to officially certify theelection results until at least Friday evening, when overseas absentee ballotsare to be tabulated, and he said she does have the authority to extend thedeadline.

"Her plan, I'm afraid, has the look of an effort to produce a particularresult in the election, rather than to ensure that the voice of all thecitizens of the state would be heard," Christopher said.

Neither side is disputing that Florida election law states that electionreturns must be sent to the Florida secretary of state's office by 5 p.m. onthe seventh day after the election. The debate centers on a penalty in the lawthat says that if the deadline is missed, "such returns may be ignored."Because the law uses the word "may," Democrats say Harris has the discretionto extend the deadline.

They cite a 1988 Florida Supreme Court decision on Florida election lawthat concluded "that the primary consideration in an election contest iswhether the will of the people has been effected."

Harris said the law gave her no discretion to extend the deadline, with thepossible exception of natural disasters like Hurricane Andrew, wherecompliance would be impossible, though the law makes no such specificexception. "But a close election, regardless of the identity of thecandidates, is not such a circumstance; the law provides for automaticrecounts, protests, and manual recounts, and it plainly states when thisprocess must end," her statement said.

But yesterday afternoon, lawyers for Palm Beach and Volusia counties,Democratic strongholds where Gore is ahead in the vote, told Circuit JudgeTerry P. Lewis that Harris was arbitrarily imposing a deadline even as thehand count went on, and Dexter Douglass, a lawyer for the Gore campaign,ridiculed Harris' reasoning.

"Let me tell you," Douglass said. "This is not only a hurricane, this is abark-splitting North Florida cyclone with a hurricane tailing on the end ofit." He added: "The issue is, does Florida stand up for an honest vote, thatpeople in other countries can look to and say that the United States hashonest elections, or there are elections where some bureaucrat writes a letterand says, you lose, your vote doesn't count."

The dispute over the deadline appeared to nullify the importance of U.S.District Judge Donald Middlebrooks' ruling yesterday that the hand re-countsin four Florida counties should continue. Gore officials had requested thatthose counties conduct a hand recount because of what they saw as"irregularities."

Middlebrooks ruled that it was up to the state courts, not the federalcourts, to determine how Florida election law is carried out.

Meanwhile, a half-dozen separate legal cases brought by Palm Beach Countycitizens were consolidated into one that could be heard today. An emergencyhearing in the case yesterday ended when Judge Stephen Rapp recused himselfafter some residentscomplained of bias.

The Palm Beach cases contend that thousands of voters were confused by theform of the ballot in their county and might have voted for Patrick J.Buchanan of the Reform Party or mistakenly voted for both Gore and Buchanan.Buchanan received a disproportionately large vote total in the heavilyDemocratic county, and about 19,000 ballots in the county were tossed outbecause two presidential candidates had been selected or because no candidateshad been punched.

Palm Beach County officials are preparing to resume hand counting about430,000 ballots today, in 14-hour shifts. The counting would take six days,said election supervisor Theresa LaPore. That would take the county not onlypast today's deadline but past Friday's deadline for overseas ballots.

Volusia County, whose largest city is Daytona Beach, is expected tocomplete its hand count of 184,000 presidential ballots by this afternoon. Asof yesterday, Bush had gained 33 votes in the county.

About 588,000 votes were cast in Broward County, where a sample hand countyesterday yielded four new votes for Gore. Miami-Dade County, the largest ofthe four, will not decide until this morning whether to begin the hand countrequested by Democratic officials.

The governor's lead in the Associated Press's unofficial tally grewyesterday, to 388, after Volusia added its 33 votes and Polk County added 100Bush votes after its second machine recount. Gore campaign officialsmaintained that a full hand count of the four counties would give Gore theedge.

Sun staff writer Stephanie Desmon contributed to this article.

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