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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Miami-Dade Cancels Recount

Ruling on 'Dimpled' Ballots Deals Second Blow to Gore

Presidency: Key county couldn't meet Sunday deadline. Meanwhile, Palm Beach standard on voter intent is upheld. And Bush appeals to U.S. Supreme Court to end counting.

November 23, 2000|MARK Z. BARABAK and SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — George W. Bush inched closer to the White House on Wednesday after Miami-Dade County abruptly abandoned its hand counting of ballots, saying it would be impossible to meet Florida's new Sunday deadline.

Then, in a second blow to rival Al Gore, a judge in Palm Beach County refused to force the tally of "dimpled" ballots, denying the vice president a potential gain of several hundred more votes.

Trailing Bush by 930 votes in the official statewide tally, the vice president hoped to make up the difference in the hand counting of ballots in heavily Democratic Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and Broward counties. By the end of the day, however, Gore had picked up only 123 votes. When Miami-Dade abandoned its hand count, he even lost the 157 votes he had netted there.

Still, with circumstances changing almost hourly, Bush sought a legal backstop in case the hand counting goes against him by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hold a hearing next week on the disputed recount. "This is a case of the utmost national importance, involving the Constitution's most fundamental rights as exercised in the nation's most important election," said Bush's attorneys.

They urged the nine justices to overturn a Florida Supreme Court decision to let the hand counts continue until Sunday, with the results folded into the state's certified tally. "The outcome of the election for the presidency of the United States may hang in the balance," the lawyers said in court papers.

In Austin, the Texas governor offered his first public comments on the Florida high court decision at a brief news conference at the state Capitol.

Bush accused the Florida court of overreaching and Gore, at least indirectly, of trying to undermine the will of voters. "I believe [Dick] Cheney and I won the vote in Florida," Bush said. "I believe some are determined to keep counting in an effort to change the legitimate result."

He again spurned Gore's proposal for a face-to-face meeting, suggesting the vice president instead join him in urging a fair count of all overseas absentee ballots.

Hours later, Bush's campaign filed a lawsuit to force a recount of more than 1,500 disqualified overseas ballots, many of them cast by U.S. military personnel.

For his part, Gore steered clear of the election mess in his only public appearance of the day. Accompanied by his wife, Tipper, and their daughter Kristin, the casually dressed vice president spent about 15 minutes hauling boxes at Washington's Project Harvest, a free food distribution center.

Gore ignored reporters' shouted questions.

The Florida high court decision Tuesday night was an important victory for Gore, keeping alive his hopes of overtaking Bush in a state both need to claim the White House. But it proved short-lived.

In Miami, the three-member county election board capped a bizarre morning of pushing, shoving and vehement Republican-led protests by effectively throwing up their hands and abandoning the hand count that started Monday.

The decision--the second time the election board has reversed itself since the election--came after a riotous session in which local officials first decided to speed the hand counting by focusing solely on "undercounted" ballots. Those are ballots where tabulation machines read no presidential preference.

There were approximately 10,750 such ballots in Miami-Dade County, out of 654,000 cast.

Angry Reaction From GOP Protesters

The action--taken to meet the Sunday deadline set in the state Supreme Court's decision--drew angry protests from Republican observers. But perhaps more upsetting was a fracas that resulted when election officials proposed moving the recount site to a venue nearer the machines needed to sort undercounted ballots.

Republicans protested that the area was too small to accommodate observers. Members of the news media chimed in. Police raced to the scene. Board members finally gave up and voted unanimously to quit counting.

"Those votes are weighing very heavily on my mind," said board chairman Lawrence D. King, who choked up and apologized for halting the hand count. But, he said, "it became rather obvious to all of us that it was going to be a deadline that couldn't be met."

Attorneys for Gore immediately sought to reverse the action. "The Miami-Dade canvassing board decision today to halt its recount--for whatever reason--flies in the face of an unambiguous, unanimous Supreme Court decision of less than 24 hours ago," Democrats argued.

But Wednesday night a state appeals court upheld the decision halting the recount. Democrats said they would take their case to the Florida Supreme Court.

In Broward, a Calmer Roller Coaster

Up the coast in Broward County, the scene was less histrionic. But the vote count there fluctuated even more wildly.

Gore ended the day with a net of 137 votes, but only after his numbers dipped to a low of 56 before he picked up nearly a vote a minute in a count of absentee ballots.

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