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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Florida Justices OK Hand Recount

Election: In a victory for Gore, state Supreme Court unanimously rules that manual re-tally of Palm Beach ballots can go on. Key ruling on whether those votes will count is due today.

November 17, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK and RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In a victory for Al Gore, the Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday that hand counting of paper ballots could go on despite George W. Bush's continuing legal efforts to stop the tallying.

But a crucial decision in the political standoff will come today, when a Tallahassee judge rules whether Secretary of State Katherine Harris will be forced to include new vote totals when she certifies a winner in the presidential election--even if that means delaying the announcement she planned for Saturday.

As it stands, Republican candidate Bush leads in Florida by 300 votes, with the last overseas absentee ballots due by midnight tonight. The winner of Florida will become the nation's 43rd president, and Gore is pressing to continue the hand recounting in Democratic areas well beyond the Tuesday deadline Republican Harris enforced this week.

Hours after the high court's decision, officials in the Democratic bastion of Palm Beach County began a manual recount of more than 460,000 ballots, which had been delayed for several days by legal haggling. The process is expected to last through the weekend.

In Broward County, Gore netted 21 votes after a second full day of hand counting was completed in that Democratic stronghold, where officials are poring over nearly 600,000 ballots.

Today, attorneys for Gore will try to expand the manual canvassing even further when they go before election officials in Miami-Dade County to urge a recount of approximately 645,000 ballots. After a partial canvass earlier this week, Miami-Dade officials voted, 2-1, against a comprehensive hand count.

Nine days after voters went to the polls to pick a new president, the overtime fight for the White House advanced on two fronts Thursday: one legal, one political.

The focus revolved around Saturday's scheduled certification of a Florida winner. Gore hopes to win enough votes from the Broward and Palm Beach county recounts to make it difficult, if not impossible, for Harris to plausibly declare Bush the victor.

Bush, in turn, hopes to create a certitude around the Saturday announcement that will make it equally difficult, if not impossible, for Gore to keep pushing for recounts without looking desperate.

Gore Presses Case in Radio Interview

As lawyers faced off in various courthouses across the Southeast, Gore pressed his case in a radio interview from Washington, denying any divisiveness in his fight to overtake Bush in Florida. "I just want to do my part to try to protect our country and our ability to come together," he said.

"The choice really is whether the voters are going to decide this election by having every vote count or whether that process is going to be short-circuited without all the votes being examined," Gore said in an ABC radio interview on a show hosted by Tom Joyner.

Asked whether the Republicans were trying to steal the election, he said: "I would discourage the use of that word." But he reiterated that every vote needs to be counted.

While Bush remained out of the public eye, the governor's campaign announced it would abandon threats to challenge the vote in Iowa, where Gore eked out victory by just 0.3% of 1.3 million votes cast.

"Gov. Bush believes the time has arrived for our nation to begin the process of moving forward," campaign chairman Donald Evans told reporters in Austin, Texas--and he urged Gore to follow suit.

"A concluding deadline arrives [tonight] at midnight in Florida," Evans said. "For the sake of our country, and so that we can begin to unite our nation, [tonight's] deadline must be honored."

At the same time, however, the Bush campaign stepped up efforts to pursue a possible recount in Oregon, where Gore leads by about 5,750 votes.

Most of Thursday's action, however, was on the legal front, as the election aftermath continued its now-familiar pattern of lawsuit, followed by countersuit, followed by counter-counter-lawsuit.

Taking their legal fight outside Florida, the two sides battled in federal court in Atlanta, filing briefs over a Bush bid to stop the hand counting on constitutional grounds. "Eight days after Florida's presidential vote, the entire nation is witnessing the disintegration of a process that was designed to elect America's president," Bush's attorneys argued.

But Gore's lawyers, who wish to keep the matter in presumably more friendly Florida courts, asserted that the case "is simply not appropriate for federal court intervention of any kind at this point in the proceeding."

The Supreme Court decision came in a case brought by the Palm Beach County canvassing board.

Attorneys for Bush and Harris argued Florida law specifically calls for a machine recount, not hand tabulations, in close elections. After unofficial results gave Bush a statewide 1,784-lead on the morning after the election, a machine-tabulated recount left the governor ahead by 300 votes.

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