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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS | Election Heads to Court
Showdown

Manual Recounts Grind On in Florida Amid Frayed Nerves

Politics: Each side prepares for today's oral arguments before justices. GOP says three counties' ongoing hand tallies will 'skew the results.' Democrats cite 'capriciousness' of the effort to block the counts.

November 20, 2000|RICHARD A. SERRANO and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Attorneys for Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush prepared Sunday for a historic showdown today before the Florida Supreme Court here, even as two counties pushed forward with hand recounts of votes and a third county--the sprawling Miami-Dade metropolis--readied its own recounting effort.

In preparation for oral arguments before the seven-member high court, attorneys for Bush said in legal papers Sunday that state law gives Secretary of State Katherine Harris broad authority to declare a presidential winner in Florida and put an end to the tally and re-tallies because "there is no duty to conduct a manual recount or any right to have one."

Bush's attorneys argued that allowing Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties to conduct recounts "necessarily would produce an inaccurate tabulation."

"Allowing these three counties, and only these three counties, to include manual recounts will inevitably skew the results in a partisan manner that favors Democrats," the Bush lawyers said in a 46-page brief.

But lawyers representing Gore responded in a 22-page document that large counties inevitably face a tough time beating a seven-day deadline to certify election results. And they blamed Harris for the late start of the recounts, calling her subsequent push to block the tallies "the very definition of capriciousness."

To exclude the hand tallies, the Gore lawyers argued, "would make a mockery" of state law and exclude thousands of voters from being counted "not by virtue of their own action or inaction" but because of balky canvassing boards dealing with "an arguably unlawful timetable" set by Harris.

The high court is not expected to rule until Tuesday or later, and the key question for both sides is when Harris will be allowed to certify the final results.

The GOP wants the certification now, while Bush is still ahead with a 930-vote lead; Democrats do not want it until the manual recounts are completed.

In South Florida, meanwhile, canvassing boards in Broward and Palm Beach counties continued scrutinizing ballots.

In Broward County, in a reversal significant for the Gore campaign, the three-member board voted unanimously to liberalize the standard by which undervotes are reviewed.

Last week, the board firmly decided that only chads--the paper scraps that fall out when a ballot is punched--detached from two sides of the ballot could be considered votes. Now, any undervote, including ones marked by no more than dimples, will be reviewed, Broward County Atty. Ed Dion announced Sunday.

"We felt our previous standard was too restrictive and therefore unlawful," Dion said. "So now the board will consider every undervote on a case-by-case basis to determine the voter's intent."

Broward Democrats were thrilled by the decision, which potentially could mean hundreds of more desperately needed votes for Gore.

"We have been saying all along they needed to do this to give us a fair and accurate vote," said Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.).

Republicans said the decision was outrageous. "It's like changing the rules in the middle of the game. It's unfair," said Ray Sullivan, a spokesman for the Bush campaign.

As of Sunday afternoon, 391 precincts had been counted, with 105 net votes for Gore.

Broward plans to finish counting all 609 precincts by 5 p.m. today. Election officials then will turn to the disputed undervotes, which have been set aside since the Broward recount began Wednesday.

In Palm Beach County, election officials attempted a stab at civility, a day after a marathon counting session that resulted in few results but plenty of tension, frayed nerves and emotional accusations of conspiracy.

Charles Burton, the Palm Beach County judge who is the chairman of the county election canvassing board, offered 28 exhausted counting teams a jovial pep talk Sunday morning. Election officials said there was now a shred of hope that it could be complete by Thanksgiving.

Burton urged the counters, who are evenly divided among Republicans and Democrats, to be kinder to one another despite their partisan differences.

He pointed out that when the county is handling nearly half a million ballots, there will be minor errors. But he said the errors do not amount to conspiracy. He recalled a moment Saturday when a chad fell to the floor.

"I'm telling you," he said, "the observer went crazy: 'There's a chad on the floor! Help!' "

Earlier in the weekend, the hand count had been dominated by a Republican campaign to paint the South Florida recounts as tainted and out of control. The GOP had alleged, among other things, that ballots were dropped and misplaced, taped over and used at one point to clean a woman's fingernails. They accused Broward County election workers of eating chads.

Despite the furor, Denise D. Dytrych, the Palm Beach County attorney and a Republican, said: "I haven't seen anything that would even be close to fraud."

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