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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Bush leads by 300 Votes in Florida; Late Recounts by Hand Still in Play

Presidency: Secretary of state sets deadline for today for counties to tell her why they need more time. The two candidates' camps are hinting at more legal action.

November 15, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK and RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Throwing the presidential election into further turmoil, a judge upheld Tuesday's deadline for counting Florida's vote and a new tally gave George W. Bush a 300-vote lead.

But the judge also gave local officials enough leeway to continue hand counting disputed ballots, sustaining Al Gore's hopes of pulling ahead and winning the White House.

In an effort to force a resolution, Secretary of State Katherine Harris gave county officials until 2 p.m. EST today to say why their hand counts should continue.

The announcement of Florida's updated vote capped yet another day of rapid-fire litigation and political brinkmanship as the aftermath of the most confounding presidential election in decades grew, if anything, even more confusing.

County officials, who sued the state to allow hand counting of disputed ballots, had an appeal pending on Tuesday's cutoff for all tabulations to be completed. The two presidential campaigns hinted at further legal action as well.

Attorneys for the Texas governor may be back in federal court as early as today, asking judges in Atlanta to overturn a decision Monday that upheld the manual recounts.

In West Palm Beach, where hundreds of thousands of ballots are at stake, local officials voted Tuesday to defy the deadline and start with a hand recount today. The process may take until Sunday.

In Miami, election workers also pushed past the state's 5 p.m. cutoff and completed a hand count of about 5,800 ballots, 1% of those cast in Miami-Dade County. The county canvassing board voted, 2 to 1, against a full hand count after the sampling in three precincts produced a net gain of only six votes for Gore. Those votes will be sent on to Tallahassee.

In Broward County, local officials voted to ask the state Supreme Court whether to proceed with a hand count of more than 550,000 ballots after receiving conflicting legal advice from Harris, a Republican, and state Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth, a Democrat. A ruling could come today.

In Volusia County, Gore picked up 98 votes after a grueling manual recount of more than 184,000 ballots. With just minutes to spare before the 5 p.m. deadline, county election officials turned over the certified results to a waiting representative of Harris. The aide had been dispatched from Tallahassee to pick up the document to give Volusia County as much time as possible to complete its work.

One week after the nation went to the polls to pick a new president, both candidates remained shy of the 270 electoral votes needed to claim the White House.

Even as Florida sorted through its postelection mess, New Mexico flopped Tuesday from Republican Bush's column back to Democrat Gore's after a 500-vote counting error was discovered. But state officials said the race was still too close to call and, regardless, the outcome will not determine who wins the White House.

That remains up to Florida, with 25 make-or-break electoral votes--which could tip on an undetermined number of absentee ballots due back by Friday.

As the postelection impasse entered its second week, the focus was on Tallahassee, where Gore sought to block Harris, a Bush supporter, from enforcing the state's Tuesday deadline for all votes to be counted and turned in to the state capital.

In a decision that seemed to please both camps--and further muddy the situation--Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry P. Lewis ruled that Florida counties could file new vote totals after the cutoff. But Lewis gave Harris authority to reject or approve them using "the proper exercise and discretion."

On Monday, Harris had told the judge that only an "act of God" --such as a hurricane--would legally prevent her from demanding the final canvass numbers on Tuesday afternoon, the seventh day after the presidential election. But Lewis said that her discretion is much broader.

"To determine ahead of time that such returns will be ignored, unless caused by some act of God, is not the exercise of discretion," the judge determined. "It is the abdication of that discretion."

Indeed, Lewis raised a variety of possible situations that could lead to Harris using her discretion to allow some counties more time to report their results.

"What if there was an electrical power outage?" he said. "Some other malfunction of the transmitting equipment? . . . When was the request for recount made? What were the reasons given? When did the canvassing board decide to do a manual count?"

Democrats seized on that opening in Lewis' ruling to urge counties to continue their hand counting. "The most important thing now is for the counties whose manual counts are in progress to continue and complete their work," said former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, Gore's chief counsel in Florida.

David Boies, a Gore attorney, went further by suggesting more legal action if Harris did not accept late hand-counted votes.

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