By TIM NICKENS, ALICIA CALDWELL, SHELBY OPPEL and ADAM C. SMITH
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 2000
George W. Bush turned up the heat on Al Gore Friday to give up his uphill fight for Florida and the presidential election.
Publicly, the Texas governor acted as the president-elect, preparing for a smooth transition into the White House. Privately, he gave former Secretary of State James Baker permission to seek a court order as early as today in Florida to block vote recounts by hand that were sought by the vice president.
Two Florida counties, Volusia and Palm Beach, plan to begin hand recounts this morning -- four days after a historic presidential election that remains too close to call. It was uncertain late Friday night whether Baker, who is overseeing the Florida election fight for Bush, will ask a judge to stop the efforts.
What is unmistakably clear is that Bush and his supporters are stepping up their efforts to pressure Gore to concede Florida and its 25 electoral votes, which would hand Bush the presidency.
"The more quickly this gets resolved, the better off it is for the nation," Bush said Friday afternoon in Austin, Texas. "I think that's what the country needs to know: This administration will be ready to assume office and be prepared to lead."
Yet Gore officials argued the election is far from decided.
The official recount in Florida is not complete, although an unofficial tally shows Bush leads by just 327 votes out of nearly 6-million cast. Gore's lawyers asked state elections officials late Friday not to certify the county-by-county results as scheduled on Tuesday until the hand recounts are complete.
The deadline for thousands of overseas ballots to be received and counted isn't until Friday. And even as some Democrats in Washington cautioned the vice president about waging a protracted battle, the Gore campaign sounded more determined than ever to fight.
"Waiting is unpleasant for all of us," Gore campaign manager William Daley said in Tallahassee, "but suggesting that the outcome of a vote is known before all the ballots are properly counted is inappropriate."
Even before news of possible court action today, Baker drew a clear line. He indicated Bush believes he has won the election twice, once Tuesday night and once in the recount that is all but finished. Baker said Bush is willing to wait until Friday -- and no longer -- for the overseas ballots to come in before formally declaring victory and will fight Gore's efforts to force hand-recounts.
"We will vigorously oppose the Gore campaign's efforts to keep re-counting, over and over, until it happens to like the result," Baker said.
Unless stopped by a court, Volusia and Palm Beach counties will start recounting thousands of ballots by hand this morning at the Gore campaign's request.
In Volusia County, which includes DeLand and Daytona Beach, all 184,018 ballots will be recounted by hand. In Palm Beach, several thousand ballots from three precincts will be recounted by hand at Gore's request as all ballots are recounted mechanically a third time at Bush's request.
In Broward County, a sample of several thousand ballots also will be counted on Monday. And in Miami-Dade, county officials will meet Tuesday to decide whether to recount any votes by hand.
The confusion over Florida's presidential vote has highlighted previously little-known deficiencies of various voting devices.
Punch-card systems, used in Broward, Dade, Palm Beach and most other Florida counties, often leave votes uncounted when perforated holes are not fully punched through. Optical scanning systems, used in Volusia County, are sort of like SAT tests, where voters fill in little ovals. Votes can be missed when voters fail to adequately fill in the bubbles.
Democrats suspect hundreds, even thousands, of missed votes will materialize with a careful check of all ballots in Democrat-rich Broward, Dade, Volusia and Palm Beach counties. Tens of thousands of presidential ballots in those counties were nullified because they had no presidential vote or too many presidential votes.
In Volusia County, counting votes has turned into a remarkable spectacle. Earlier in the week, authorities placed crime-scene tape around the Volusia elections office. The move was prompted by a number of irregularities, including computer glitches briefly subtracting 16,000 Gore votes and showing 10,000 votes for a Socialist candidate, and a bag of ballots being brought to the office the day after the election.
With so much focus on Volusia, elections officials were wary Friday about doing anything to raise more eyebrows.
"Okay, we need a witness," Supervisor of Elections Deanie Lowe shouted when someone asked to go into a room for a cup of coffee.
"There are no ballots in there, but I don't want anybody to think there's any hanky-panky going on," she explained.
As a half-dozen armed deputies, four Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers, reporters, and Democratic and Republican observers looked on, workers loaded hundreds of sealed ballot-filled bags into a truck to be moved across the street to a bigger space for counting. Everyone froze when one of the seals broke off. A judge on the canvassing board quickly came over to oversee the bag's re-sealing.
More than 250 people involved in the hand count will spend 14-hour days until they finish going through more than 184,000 ballots. They expect the work to continue into Tuesday.
"I'm satisfied with the accuracy of these machines," said County Judge Michael McDermott, chairman of the three-member canvassing board overseeing the count. "But given the fact that there is so much at stake for Volusia County, the state of Florida and the United States, let's do everything possible to have a fair and accurate vote."
Elections officials found 155 presidential ballots where voters either voted too often or did not cast a vote. They said they already have gone through those ballots and adjusted missed votes, but will review them again.
In Broward County, the hand count starting Monday will be less exhaustive. Broward's canvassing board rejected the Democratic Party's request that every one of the 6,700 ballots without a presidential vote cast be examined to ensure people's votes weren't missed. Instead, the board agreed to review ballots totaling 1 percent of the votes cast for Gore, choosing three precincts where about 95 percent of the voters backed Gore.
Six two-person counting teams will go through the 3,892 ballots in a county warehouse in Fort Lauderdale. They will work behind glass windows and open microphones so they can be watched and heard as they count.
They will decide what do from there after they see the results.
Much of the spotlight has been on Palm Beach County, where more than 19,000 votes were thrown out because more than one candidate was chosen. Gore supporters say voters were confused by the ballot's design and contend that thousands voted for both Gore and Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan but intended to vote for the vice president.
State elections officials and Bush campaign officials said Friday the Palm Beach ballot was legal.
"Ballots that are double-marked can't be evidence of the voter's intent to vote one way or the other," Baker said. "This happens in every precinct and in every election. And the procedure is very clear. Those ballots have to be discarded."
Gore campaign officials disagree and are helping voters who had their ballots discounted prepare lawsuits. "Our legal team has concluded that the ballot in Palm Beach County was unlawful," Daley said.
Palm Beach officials will recount more than 4,600 ballots today, 1 percent of the ballots that were cast. A Palm Beach circuit judge has issued a temporary injunction preventing the county from certifying the election results until a court hearing Tuesday.
Aside from these four counties, Polk County was rescanning ballots in 60 of 160 precincts.
It is a presidential election unlike any other in modern times, and Florida is at the center of the remarkable drama. The winner of the state's 25 electoral votes will win the presidency. Gore continues to lead in the national popular vote and has 262 Electoral College votes. Bush has 246 electoral votes, but he appears to have won both the initial count and the recount of Florida votes with the absentee ballots from overseas left to count.
Oregon's seven electoral votes finally went to Gore Friday. But New Mexico's five electoral votes were thrown back into the undecided column as the state was deemed too close to call. Those five electoral votes, which had been scored for Gore, are not enough for either Bush or Gore to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency.
In Texas, Bush talked at the governor's mansion as though he had won. He had a bandage on his right cheek, where he had been treated for a boil, and was surrounded by members of his would-be administration: running mate Dick Cheney; Condoleezza Rice, his likely national security adviser; Andrew Card, his expected chief of staff; and Lawrence Lindsey, who may be secretary of the treasury.
"We're taking our time in a very low-key manner, preparing for a possible administration," Bush said before heading to his ranch in Crawford, Texas, for the weekend.
But there was nothing low-key about the sniping in Florida.
In Tallahassee, Baker held the first of back-to-back news conferences in the Senate Office Building adjacent to the Capitol. Standing in front of a makeshift backdrop of a blue curtain and an American flag, Baker faced a packed Senate committee room of U.S. journalists and others from as far away as Germany and Japan, plus a few curious college students and mothers who had brought their children to witness the events.
Baker said the Bush campaign is willing to wait for an official Florida result until Friday, the deadline for overseas ballots to be counted. But he said Bush has won both the initial count and the recount, and he warned that the campaign will fight Gore's efforts to pursue widespread recounts of ballots by hand.
"We understand . . . that it is frustrating to lose an election by a narrow margin, but it happens," Baker said. "For the good of the country, and for the sake of our standing in the world, the campaigning should end and the business of an orderly transition should begin."
He said two GOP presidential candidates, Richard Nixon in 1960 and Gerald Ford in 1976, lost close elections but accepted defeat "for the good of the country."
In Nixon's case, though, it would not have mattered if he had contested Illinois based on allegations of widespread fraud. Even if Nixon had won Illinois instead of John F. Kennedy, he still would not have had enough electoral votes to win the presidency.
Baker suggested that if Gore persisted in pushing for recounts in Florida, Bush might want to seek recounts in states such as Iowa and Wisconsin that Gore narrowly won.
Fine, countered former Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
Christopher, who is heading Gore's recount effort in Florida, joined Daley in the same Capitol room where Baker had spoken 30 minutes earlier. He dismissed Baker's argument that the protracted fight for Florida should end for the good of the country.
"We're only three days away from the election itself," Christopher said. "I don't see any threat to our Constitution. Indeed, what we're doing is a constitutional process."
- Staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated press.