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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Justices Delay Official Tally

Florida High Court Bars Certifying Votes; Monday Hearing Set

Circuit Court, Meanwhile, Denies Bush's Bid to Stop Hand Recounts, Which Then Spread to Miami-Dade; Absentee Votes Widen His Lead Over Gore to 760

November 18, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK and RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In another day of dramatic reversals, the Florida Supreme Court on Friday indefinitely delayed final certification of the state's election results, preserving Al Gore's hopes of overtaking George W. Bush as hand counting grew to more than 1.5 million ballots.

Bush suffered a second legal setback when a federal appeals court in Atlanta rejected his bid to block the hand counting, even as initial tallying of overseas ballots upped his narrow Florida lead.

With returns from 65 of 67 counties, Bush more than doubled his lead to 760 votes, up from 300 at the start of the day. But the tallying produced new controversies, as Democrats and Republicans squabbled over everything from postmarks to the condition in which some overseas ballots arrived.

Secretary of State Katherine Harris had intended to certify Florida's results today after counting the last of the absentee votes, a deadline that could have forced a resolution to the election muddle. Instead, the hand counting of ballots will continue through the weekend and lawyers for the two presidential candidates will return to court Monday to contest Harris' decision to ignore updated vote totals.

In a two-sentence statement, issued even before justices received Gore's petition, the Supreme Court said its intention was "to maintain the status quo."

Gore immediately hailed the decision.

"I want to be clear: Neither Gov. Bush, nor the Florida secretary of state nor I will be the arbiter of this election," the vice president told reporters hastily assembled outside his private residence in Washington. "This election is a matter that must be decided by the will of the people as expressed under the rule of law."

But the Bush camp voiced hopes of prevailing Monday. "We remain confident that the Supreme Court will find that the secretary of state properly exercised her discretion and followed the law," said James A. Baker III, Bush's Florida point man.

Practically speaking, the ruling amounted to a significant defeat for the GOP presidential nominee--all the more stinging because Bush had triumphed in a lower court decision upholding Harris' actions just hours earlier.

The ruling gave Gore a critical three extra days to collect votes, which could make it more difficult for Harris to declare the election over and Bush the winner, particularly if the vice president manages to pull ahead in the count. "Could you imagine the explosion if she certified Bush the winner and it turns out Gore won Florida?" said one Gore campaign advisor.

Both candidates are just shy of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Florida, with 25 electoral votes, will tip the race one way or the other.

GOP Hopes for a Win Today Are Dashed

Republicans had hoped to stop the hand counting underway in heavily Democratic Palm Beach and Broward counties and have the election declared over today with Bush clinging to his narrow lead.

Instead, the manual canvass will spread to still another Democratic stronghold, Miami-Dade County, after local election officials reversed course Friday and voted to begin a manual recount of its roughly 650,000 ballots. Officials plan to meet today to decide how to proceed.

The hairpin turns on Friday were reminiscent of election night, when first one side then the other found cause to celebrate.

Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for the Bush campaign, described the last 10 days as an emotional roller coaster and said Friday "we had two rides for the price of one."

Chris Lehane, Gore's press secretary, agreed. "You're up and you're down. One of the truest things we've discovered is that every hour things change dramatically. The worm is constantly turning."

The day began with a major disappointment for Gore when Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry P. Lewis ruled that Harris properly used her discretion in refusing to accept any votes tallied after the state's Tuesday deadline for counties to report election results. Attorneys for Gore had argued that Harris acted "arbitrarily."

"I disagree," the judge said in a brief ruling read by a court clerk on national television. "On the limited evidence presented, it appears the secretary has exercised her reasoned judgment . . . , applied them to the facts . . . and made her decision."

State High Court Makes Its Move

The Bush camp seized on the ruling as a decisive breakthrough in the 10-day-old stalemate.

Harris issued a two-sentence statement vowing to move ahead toward final certification, and Baker declared, "The rule of law has prevailed."

But the seven-member state Supreme Court issued its brief order just a few hours later. The court blocked Harris from certifying a winner "until further order of this court."

The seven justices--all but one of them Democratic appointees--said they acted "in order to maintain the status quo." The court further stated: "It is NOT the intent of this order to stop the counting. . . ."

The reversal exasperated Republicans.

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