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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Justices Begin Deliberating

Florida Court Hastens to Rule on Fate of Recounts, Race

Presidency: Exchanges show court's interest in timetable that will let state meet Dec. 18 electoral college deadline. Meanwhile, Gore makes small gains in hand tallies.

November 21, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK and RICHARD A. SERRANO | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — As the nation looked on, attorneys for Al Gore and George W. Bush battled Monday before the Florida Supreme Court over whether to declare a presidential winner right away or continue counting ballots into December.

The seven-member court issued no ruling but could make a decision as early as today in the extraordinary case that may effectively decide who will be the country's 43rd president.

Even as the court heard arguments, the hand counting of ballots commenced in a third county, Miami-Dade, and Gore continued to chip away at Bush's 930-vote Florida lead.

By Monday night, Democratic candidate Gore had picked up 117 votes in Broward County, 46 in Miami-Dade and three in Palm Beach County. If the votes were included in Florida's official tally, Republican Bush's lead would shrink to 764 votes.

But Bush hoped to make gains of his own after the Florida attorney general directed election officials to reconsider the disqualification of about 1,400 overseas ballots.

Elsewhere, Democrats suffered a legal setback Monday when a Palm Beach County judge refused to order a new countywide vote to clear up confusion arising from its so-called "butterfly ballot." Democrats immediately appealed.

But the focal point of the day's drama was the two-hour hearing before the Florida Supreme Court, televised live around the world from the high-ceilinged, filled-to-capacity chamber in Tallahassee.

Boring down on attorneys for both sides, the chief justice and other members of the court repeatedly raised the prospect of allowing the recounts to go on for several more weeks.

Chief Justice Charles T. Wells pressed attorneys on how long Florida could wait to certify its election results without jeopardizing its standing in the electoral college, which meets Dec. 18 to select the next president.

"I'd like to sort of get this hammered down to that framework," Wells said, asking when--not whether--any amended vote totals must be added to the state's final certification before the electoral college deadline.

Both sides agreed the recounting would realistically have to conclude by Dec. 12, to allow time for any last-minute challenges before the state's electors convene on Dec. 18 in Tallahassee.

Attorneys for Gore would like to complete the manual recounts, hoping the vice president can muster the votes needed to overtake Bush in Florida.

But attorneys for the Texas governor insisted that Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris has the authority to immediately certify the results, noting certification was due Nov. 14, one week after the election.

The justices seemed most concerned, however, about finding a process in which all votes are counted and where all votes are weighted equally--both those counted by machine and those being retallied by hand.

They also wondered about the hand tallying of votes solely in Democratic-leaning counties and asked whether a manual recount of the entire state could, or should, be conducted.

"How do you think a statewide recount would impact on the whole idea of getting these things done before Dec. 12?" asked Justice Peggy A. Quince. "And aren't we just adding another layer if we order a statewide recount?"

"You could be," answered David Boies, a Gore attorney. However, since recounts are underway in three of the state's most populous counties, "it would be practical to do those [statewide] recounts if the court felt it to be desirable."

Sides Weigh Further Actions

Justice Barbara J. Pariente asked Bush attorney Michael A. Carvin whether the GOP nominee would not want a statewide recount to boost his vote numbers, particularly if Gore pulls ahead.

"No, your honor," Carvin replied. "I think we should follow the process that's set out in the statute."

While awaiting the court's ruling, both sides were mulling their options for further challenges if the decision goes against them. Among them: Republicans have been gathering information that more than 1,000 Florida residents are simultaneously registered to vote in New York, which could lead to legal challenges to those ballots; Gore advisors have collected evidence that several hundred Floridians also are registered to vote in Alabama.

On Monday, Republicans prevailed in a political skirmish over absentee votes cast abroad.

State Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth, following cues from the Gore campaign, directed election officials statewide to review the decision to reject more than 1,400 overseas ballots--a move that might have prevented Bush from building an even bigger lead.

Butterworth noted that many counties disqualified overseas ballots for lack of a postmark, when both state and federal laws say such ballots should be counted so long as they are signed and received no later than 10 days after the election.

"No man or woman in military service to this nation should have his or her vote rejected solely due to the absence of a postmark," said Butterworth, a Democrat and co-chairman of Gore's Florida campaign.

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