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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS | Court OKs Hand Recounts

Unanimous Ruling Sets New Deadlines for Tallies

Election: Florida justices give counties until Sunday to file results. Gore hails decision, but Bush observer Baker calls it 'unacceptable' and says Legislature may act.


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Handing an important victory to Al Gore, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Tuesday night that manual recounting of presidential ballots could continue for several more days and the results must be included in the state's final tally.

But the justices set a Sunday deadline for all work to be completed, which may cut short the canvassing in Florida's biggest county.

Gore welcomed the decision, but an angry James A. Baker III, representing George W. Bush's campaign, called the ruling "unacceptable" and suggested the GOP-run Legislature may intervene. Based on the hand counts completed so far, Bush clings to a 664-vote lead in Florida.

In its unanimous decision, the justices stated "an accurate vote count is one of the essential foundations of our democracy."

"The will of the people, not a hyper-technical reliance upon statutory provisions, should be our guiding principle in election cases," the court said.

With that, the justices extended an order blocking Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris from certifying the state's election results pending returns from three counties that are hand tallying more than 1.7 million paper ballots.

"To summarily disenfranchise innocent electors in an effort to punish dilatory [election] board members, as she proposes in the present case, misses the constitutional mark," the justices stated in their 42-page opinion, issued about 30 hours after Monday's arguments.

Harris had intended to certify the results last Saturday, effectively handing Bush the presidency. The returns at that time showed the Texas governor ahead by 930 votes out of about 6 million cast.

Instead, the high court ruled that Harris must accept amended vote totals up to 5 p.m EST Sunday or, if her office is closed, as late as 9 a.m EST Monday.

Gore hailed the decision and again invited Bush to a meeting "to demonstrate the essential unity that keeps America strong and free."

Speaking in the foyer of the vice president's official residence, with running mate Joseph I. Lieberman standing one step behind, Gore urged that partisans on both sides tone down their rhetoric.

And even through Gore leads Bush in the popular vote, he renounced any attempt to win the White House by wooing electoral college voters away. "I completely disavow any effort to persuade electors to switch their support from the candidate to whom they are pledged," he said. "I will not accept the support of any elector pledged to Gov. Bush."

Bush, who was in Austin, Texas, made no public comments.

But a bristling Baker, his chief counsel in Florida, sharply condemned the high court ruling, calling it "unfair and unacceptable."

"The Supreme Court rewrote the Legislature's statutory system, assumed the responsibility of the executive branch, sidestepped the . . . trial court as the finder of fact . . . ," he told reporters in Tallahassee. "It is simply not fair . . . to change the rules either during the game or after the game has been played."

Baker said "no one should be surprised" if the state Legislature steps into the controversy. He did not specify what action the lawmakers might take. But earlier Tuesday, even before the high court ruled, some statehouse Republicans discussed the possibility of a special session to seat the state's 25 electors--who hold the key to the White House, since both candidates are just short of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the Nov. 7 election.

Given GOP dominance of the Legislature, such a move would presumably benefit Bush.

In order to call a special session, both chambers would either have to approve it by two-thirds or get a proclamation from the governor--Bush's brother, Jeb Bush.

The high court decision left unresolved one of the critical questions still surrounding the disputed Florida vote, declining to establish standards for county officials to use in determining which ballots should be counted.

The court said counties should do everything they can to determine the will of the voters and cited as "particularly apt" a 1990 Illinois Supreme Court ruling in which that court said that "to invalidate a ballot which clearly reflects the voter's intent, simply because a machine cannot read it, would subordinate substance to form and promote the means at the expense of the end."

At issue in Florida is whether election workers should tally "dimpled" ballots--those with the hole next to a candidate's name indented rather than punched through. Attorneys for Gore assert the "dimples" should be read as a voter's intent to back a particular candidate; practically speaking, Gore hopes a more lenient standard for tallying disputed ballots will boost his chances of overtaking Bush in the recount.

Even as the justices spent the day in deliberations, the hand counting of ballots continued across South Florida. Gore picked up 157 votes in Miami-Dade County and 106 in Broward. There was no change in Palm Beach County, where officials withheld updated numbers pending more careful scrutiny of disputed ballots.

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