TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—A state judge flatly rejected yesterday Al Gore's challenge of Florida election results, a ruling that reduces considerably the vice president's chance of proving that he and not George W. Bush won the presidency.
The ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls means that about 14,000 contested ballots won't be manually recounted, the only shot the vice president had of overcoming the Texas governor's 537-vote victory margin before states choose their electors Dec. 12.
"The court finds the plaintiffs have failed to carry the requisite burden of proof," the judge concluded.
Sauls also ruled that a contest in a presidential election must be mounted statewide, 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 a vindication of Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris' decision to exclude hand recounts that were conducted beyond Nov. 17, a decision that cost Gore precious votes from three largely Democratic counties in South Florida.
"The fact is Governor Bush and Secretary Cheney have won Florida," said Ben Ginsburg, a Bush campaign lawyer speaking for the Republicans' legal team.
In Texas, Bush spokesman Karen Hughes echoed the sentiments of the Bush lawyers, who hailed from Tallahassee, Chicago and Denver.
"Governor Bush was very pleased with the Florida court's thoughtful and comprehensive 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 what I 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 what the right is of citizens to have their votes counted."
Both sides in this historic election contest said they would do just that if they lost before Sauls. Boies, the New York lawyer who led the government's legal case against Microsoft Corp., said the judge never considered the Gore team'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 the ballots."
About 1.1 million ballots from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties were shipped to Tallahassee at the judge's order. They will remain under lock and key 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 25 electors. 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 Supreme Court will accept that," Boies told a crowd of reporters and television cameras minutes after the judge ruled from his maroon leather swivel chair in a third-floor courtroom.
Several hours before Sauls read his decision, the U.S. Supreme Court asked the Florida justices to rework the legal basis of their Nov. 21 ruling that extended 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 over Thanksgiving weekend. The vice president still couldn't marshal the votes needed to overcome Bush's margin, which has varied from about 930 -- the figure after overseas ballots were counted -- to 300, the number Harris certified Nov. 15.
Palm Beach County, where confusion over the so-called butterfly ballot started the election challenges, raced to finish a manual recount of its ballots 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 the strict deadline set by the state Supreme Court.
When the final state certification was made, Gore trailed Bush by 537 votes out of nearly 6 million ballots counted. Convinced that he had really won Florida, Gore set out to get every ballot that was cast counted. His legal team mounted a contest of the vote count. It alleged that Harris, the elections chief, had excluded legal votes in the state total and included illegal ones.
The Gore camp challenged the strict standard used by Palm Beach's canvassing board in hand-counting ballots. The board decided not to count ballots that included dimpled or indented chads -- tiny bits of paper that fail to dislodge from a ballot when a voter tried to mark his choice with a stylus.
Gore also contested the Miami-Dade canvassing board's decision not to conduct a manual recount after it found that 10,750 ballots recorded no presidential vote when run through election machines.
Lastly, it challenged a decision by the Nassau County elections board to substitute election night returns for a state-mandated manual recount, which gave Gore more votes. The board made the switch after it realized that it had forgotten to run about 216 ballots through the machine recount.
Sauls, a folksy 17-year veteran of the court, refused to consider a judicial count of the ballots until he had an evidentiary hearing on the matter. Lawyers for the two candidates presented their evidence in a two-day hearing that concluded Sunday night.
Gore's legal team put on only two witnesses -- an elections consultant and a statistician. It insisted that the ballots were the vice president's best evidence. However, the judge never examined them.
The Bush legal team, armed with laptops and laser projections, called its own statistician and election machine consultant. They called several other witnesses, including Republican operatives and voters who objected to a recount.
Their elections consultant, John Ahmann, provided the most exciting twist in the hearing when he offered testimony that helped the Gore cause. Ahmann, who designed the punch-card voting devices and later opened a company that sold them, conceded that the best way to decide a close election is through a manual count.
But Ahmann's testimony did not sway Sauls.