All Eyes On Florida Recount Case

Mon. November 13, 2000 12:00 AM by Newstream

Tallahassee, FL - A federal judge appointed by President Clinton planned to hear arguments this morning on whether to block third and fourth counts of ballots in predominately Democratic Florida counties from possibly reversing the victory of George W. Bush.

With Mr. Gore already picking up a growing number of votes in a chaotic fourth tally of ballots that began Saturday in Palm Beach County, the judge's decision on whether to stop this and other recounts in their tracks could prove pivotal in determining who will be the next president.

The Bush team believes its hand has been strengthened considerably by the highly visible confusion that reigned when the Democrat-controlled Palm Beach Election Board hand-counted 1 percent of its precincts Saturday. Repeatedly changing their own rules as they counted ballots, election officials netted another 19 votes for Mr. Gore and voted to begin hand-counting the remaining 99 percent of precincts today.

"We actually feel stronger about our case now after seeing the chaos that went on yesterday with these hand-countings," Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said last night in Tallahassee. "We had people that were in the room counting, asking our observers what they were supposed to be doing.

"We had standards changing throughout the day: At first there were no standards; in the middle of the day, they established a standard; then several hours later they changed it.

"We've seen the same kind of confusion going on in Volusia County today," Miss Tucker added. "I think it's clear that the accuracy of these results coming out of these hand-counts is definitely questionable."

Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway said it was "silly" for the Bush camp to argue in its request for an injunction that the hand counts are unconstitutional.

"We think the federal judge is going to see there's no reason for the federal government to step in and stop the local officials from counting their own citizens' ballots," Mr. Hattaway said here. "The hand count is provided under Florida law, it's proceeding under Florida law, it's the right thing to do to ensure that thousands of people whose votes weren't counted by machines get their votes counted by human beings."

He added: "I think when we see the counts done in South Florida that Al Gore will have won. But of course, whoever wins, the other guy's got to concede."

Palm Beach County has now counted its 425,000 ballots three times by machine. But early yesterday, the county election board voted 2-1 along party lines to conduct a fourth count — this time by hand — after the board's two Democrats extrapolated from the 1 percent sample that Mr. Gore could gain 1,900 votes.

That would be more than needed to overcome the Texas governor's lead in Florida, which stands at 288 votes after the state's second count of votes cast Tuesday. Although Mr. Bush is expected to win at least half of several thousand absentee ballots from overseas that will be tallied Friday, his margin of victory would likely be overwhelmed if the vice president is credited with votes that are expected to materialize from hand counts in four Democratic counties.

While Palm Beach County officials took yesterday off, their counterparts in Volusia County began their own manual count, but only after voting to file a lawsuit asking the Secretary of State to extend their deadline for completing the count beyond 5 p.m. tomorrow —when all totals are due in Tallahassee.

County officials later said the lawsuit might be moot because the recount was proceeding with unexpected swiftness, thanks to poll workers spending an average of just five seconds examining each of the county's 125,000 ballots.

Broward County was expected to begin its own hand count today, while officials in Dade County planned to begin recounting ballots by hand tomorrow.

But it remained unclear whether these recounts would be completed by 5 p.m. tomorrow, the deadline for statewide results to be certified. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris warned yesterday there would be no extensions of the deadline.

If the Bush campaign's request for an injunction is denied by U.S. District Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks, who was appointed in 1996 by President Clinton, the Texas governor might push for further recounts in predominately Republican Florida counties. Republicans missed the 72-hour deadline for requesting additional recounts from counties that have completed their tallies, although the Bush team could achieve the same result if it asks a court for recounts within 10 days after the statewide certification of election results, which is scheduled for tomorrow.

Republicans also might push for recounts in states where Mr. Gore appeared to win by extremely narrow margins, like Iowa and Oregon. New Mexico already appears to have shifted from Mr. Gore to Mr. Bush.

The Bush camp could also open fronts against the vice president in states where Democratic voter fraud is suspected. These include Wisconsin, where homeless men were filmed accepting cartons of cigarettes from Democrats after voting.

In short, the decision by Judge Middlebrooks, in addition to possibly determining the next president, might also determine whether that outcome will be preceded by a full-scale legal and political war.

"We can go into Wisconsin, we can go into Iowa, we can go into maybe one or two other states and start recounting, and when will we conclude the election of our president?" said former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who is representing Mr. Bush in Tallahassee. "At some point there should be finality to this election."

He said the Texas governor is willing to gamble that his 288-vote statewide lead will hold up after the overseas absentee ballots are tallied on Friday.

"We only have a narrow lead in the statewide recount, so there's some risk, I suppose, that Governor Bush could lose when those overseas ballots are counted," he said during an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press." "But he's willing to say, fine, there should be a cutoff point here."

Mr. Gore's representative, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, would not accept the bargain unless Mr. Gore is allowed to count extra votes he is expected to pick up in the hand counts of Democratic counties. He also defended Palm Beach County election workers, who were widely criticized for Saturday's chaotic recount.

"These are local election officials chosen by the people in their counties — they're doing the very best they can," he said on NBC. "I think it's not very useful to parody what they're trying to do."

He added: "We chose those four counties not because they were Democratic but because in each case there were anomalies."

Mr. Christopher also denied that the vice president is delaying the process so that Florida's 25 electoral votes will remain uncommitted when electors in each state meet to vote on Dec. 18, giving Mr. Gore an edge in the Electoral College.

"Absolutely not," he said. "We're not talking about a long delay here. Frankly, I think it's a matter of days — not weeks, not months, but days.

"These hand recounts will take some time," he added. "But wouldn't it be tragic if it turned out that the wrong man had been chosen here because we didn't follow the procedures of Florida law?"

Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, New Jersey Democrat, said the contest has now entered "a downward spiral of retribution, with lawsuits in different states" and "no finality."

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott suggested the entire state of Florida might have to vote again if Mr. Gore doesn't concede.

"How many times do you have to count it?" an exasperated Mr. Lott said on Fox News Sunday. "This beats all I've ever seen and I'm very concerned about it."

With Mr. Bush sequestered at his Crawford, Texas, ranch and Mr. Gore at the official vice president's residence in Washington, representatives of both campaigns spent yesterday on spin patrol, seeking to gain an edge in public opinion even as their lawyers prepared to go to court.

Democrats filed court papers last night on behalf of Mr. Gore, arguing that Florida's manual ballot law is constitutional. Led by Harvard University law professor Laurence Tribe, Democratic Party lawyers also said Mr. Bush's complaints threaten Florida's right to run its own elections, according to the Associated Press.

News, photos provided by Newstream