After 10 hours of tedious hand-counting of PalmBeach County ballots yesterday, Vice President Al Gore closed to within fewerthan 300 votes of Texas Gov. George W. Bush in his quest to claim Florida's 25electoral votes - enough to give him the presidency.
Bush's lawyers had filed suit earlier in the day in federal court to forcean immediate halt to the hand-counting of presidential ballots in Palm Beachand three other Florida counties, maintaining that the Republican presidentialcandidate and his running mate would "suffer irreparable harm" if the countchanged the results of Tuesday's election.
But U.S. District Court Judge Donald Middlebrooks put off a hearing on theBush suit until tomorrow in Miami, permitting yesterday's vote-countingsession. Some 4,600 votes were counted by hand - 1 percent of those cast onTuesday - and the county's ballots were once again run through machines. Gorepicked up 787 votes over his total last Tuesday and Bush 105. Of those newvotes, Gore gained 33 from the hand counting yesterday, and Bush 14.
That dropped Bush's overall lead in the state to fewer than 300 votes andprompted Palm Beach County Commissioner Carol Roberts - one of the threeDemocrats on the county canvassing board - to call for a full manual recountof 470,000 ballots, an action strenuously opposed by Charles Burton, aDemocratic Circuit Court judge appointed to the bench by Bush's youngerbrother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
But Roberts' motion carried 2-1, after she argued that Gore's vote pickup,if extropolated to the full county vote would give him a net gain of 1,900votes and would "clearly would affect the result of the election."
The events of the day precipitously heightened the rancor surrounding apresidential election whose outcome has not been determined.
In accordance with Florida state law, the campaign of Vice President AlGore had requested a hand count to examine nearly 80,000 ballots that were notcounted in four counties: Volusia, Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade. ButBush and his running mate, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, went tofederal court, seeking to override the state statute permitting the handcount.
The candidates' suit maintained that by opening the election to the"subjective interpretation of voters' intent," the hand counts would violatethe constitutional right to equal treatment under the law by "arbitrarilysubject[ing] voters in other counties to unequal treatment."
If the recounts swung Florida's 25 electoral votes to Gore, eventemporarily, Bush and Cheney maintained, there would be "serious damage to thelegitimacy of the presidential election."
Gore campaign officials dismissed the suit as an incursion into Florida'sright to govern its electoral process and predicted that it would bedismissed.
Bush aides have grown increasingly concerned that the hand counts couldswing to Gore a state in which the Texas governor officially leads by 960votes with 66 of 67 counties reporting - and unofficially by 327, according tothe Associated Press. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III,representing the Bush campaign, complained yesterday that hand counting wouldbe inherently subjective and open to "the potential for mischief."
Machines, in contrast, "are neither Republicans, nor Democrats, andtherefore can be neither consciously nor unconsciously biased," Baker said, ashe announced a lawsuit that "we regret we were compelled to take."
For the Gore campaign, Bush's legal action provided relief from thecriticism that the vice president was dangerously dragging out the election'sproceedings. Though Democratic supporters had filed at least eight lawsuitschallenging the results in Florida, none of those suits was brought by Gore'scampaign. Now, Gore aides said, it was Bush who went to court first.
That gave Gore officials what they believed to be the right to claim themoral high ground in a battle that has been as much about public relations asraw vote totals.
"Throughout this process, we have proceeded on a single fundamentalprincipal: We want the votes, all the votes, cast to be accurately and fairlycounted," said former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who isrepresenting the Gore campaign in the Florida recount. "The will of the peopleexpressed in accordance with the Constitution should decide who our nextpresident should be."
Added one senior Gore official: "George Bush is always saying he trusts thepeople, not the government. Well, now he seems to be trusting a federal judge,not the people."
At the heart of the dispute are nearly 80,000 ballots that might hold thepresidency in the balance. Gore carries a razor-thin lead in the popular voteof about 200,000 votes nationally, but the winner of Florida will havecaptured enough electoral votes to be the next president of the United States.
Neither of those states matters if Florida can be awarded to one candidateor the other. And the 80,000 discarded ballots loom large. Most of thoseballots were disqualified because the voter punched holes by two presidentialcandidates' names. Democratic officials concede that it would be difficult fora manual recount to determine which candidate the voter intended to back. But26,000 of the ballots were discarded because the electronic counters did notdetect a vote -10,000 in Palm Beach, 10,000 in Miami-Dade and 6,000 inBroward. This means that, in some cases, a discernible mark could be detectedby a person where it couldn't be detected by a machine. Volusia undercountfigures were not available.
As the manual recount began yesterday of a sample of ballots in Palm BeachCounty, teams of Republican and Democratic counters could be seen holdingballots up to the light to find holes that might have slipped by a machine.
The Bush campaign strongly maintained yesterday that the machine recountsthat have taken place in Florida were more than enough. Baker complained thatFlorida law provided no standards for the different counties to determinewhich ballots could be reinstated and on what grounds.
"At this point," Baker said, "a changed result would not be the mostaccurate result, simply the most recent result."
Baker said the legal action would be dropped if Gore would agree to abideby the final machine count, once overseas absentee ballots are tabulatedFriday.
But the Gore camp countered with a timely piece of opposition research: In1997, Bush signed a Texas law decreeing that in the event of a disputedelection, a hand count is preferable to a machine tabulation.
"A manual recount shall be conducted in preference to an electronicrecount," Texas law reads.
Moreover, in Seminole County, just north of Orlando, election officialstook it upon themselves last week to manually examine discarded ballots duringthe county's electronic recount. Bush wound up gaining 98 votes in theRepublican-leaning county.
For Bush, the perils of the manual count are clear. In a hand recount lastyear in a local Palm Beach County race, 16 of 369 discarded ballots - or about4 percent - were reinstated. Two years ago, in Miami-Dade County, about 8percent of the discarded ballots in a state Senate race were reinstated in ahand recount.
If such percentages held in this case, between 3,200 and 6,400 ballotswould be reinstated. And because all four counties conducting manual recountsare heavily Democratic, Gore could easily overcome a Bush lead that for themoment is under 1,000 votes.
Under Florida law, each campaign had 72 hours to request hand recounts, andit appeared yesterday that Bush had missed the deadline to seek manualexaminations in Republican counties.