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Court calls timeout

Overseas ballots give Bush 723-vote lead, but Florida Supreme Court says no winner today.

By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000


The Florida Supreme Court on Friday put the brakes on George W. Bush's plans to claim victory today in the presidential election.

Even as Bush added to his narrow lead over Al Gore in Florida with absentee votes from overseas, the state's highest court unanimously ordered Secretary of State Katherine Harris and the state canvassing commission not to declare a winner today as they had planned.

The seven justices will hear arguments Monday on whether the state should consider new totals from more than 1.6-million votes being recounted by hand -- and they indicated the court and not state elections officials will decide when it's time to end the election. They also emphasized that they are not stopping the hand recounts under way in South Florida.

Two separate types of vote-counting occurred simultaneously Friday, but the totals from only one of those efforts are certain to be included in the state's final results.

With 65 of 67 counties reporting absentee votes from overseas, Bush won a net gain of 460 votes. The Texas governor began the day with a slim 300-vote lead out of nearly 6-million votes cast, so his total lead over Gore increased to 760.

While the overseas votes will be added to the official statewide totals today, it will be up the courts to determine the fate of the hand recounts.

The Supreme Court's order was a major victory for the vice president. Gore thinks he will overtake Bush in Florida and win the presidency if the court decides the hand recounts in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties must be added to the state totals. He won all three of those counties.

When the tedious hand counting paused Friday night, Gore had a net gain of 38 votes in Broward and Bush had a net gain of one vote in Palm Beach. Miami-Dade elections officials reversed their earlier decision and voted to conduct a hand recount after the Supreme Court's order was released. They will meet this morning to determine how to proceed.

Gore, who had planned to plead for patience for a recount, rewrote his statement to include praise for the court's ruling.

"The American people want to make certain that every vote counts and that every vote is counted fairly and accurately," the vice president said outside his Washington home moments after the court released its order Friday afternoon. "The citizens of Florida surely want the candidate who received the most votes in Florida to be determined the winner of that state."

Bush has spent the week trying to convince state and federal courts as well as the public that hand recounts are less reliable than machine counts and are arbitrary, unfair and inaccurate. The Texas governor had hoped that the three-member state canvassing commission would certify Florida's results today and enable him to claim the state's 25 electoral votes and the presidency.

Instead, the state Supreme Court scuttled those plans. And a short time later, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused Bush's emergency request to halt the recounts and said the dispute is one for state courts.

Now Bush faces another court fight Monday that could be the final word unless federal courts intervene.

"The Supreme Court's action is not an order on the merits," former Secretary of State James Baker, who is monitoring Florida for Bush, said Friday evening. "We remain confident . . . the Supreme Court will find that the secretary of state properly exercised her discretion and followed the law."

Keep counting

Eleven days after the presidential election, it remains unclear who will become the next president. But the state Supreme Court's aggressive move Friday signaled that a winner could be clear by Thanksgiving.

Acting on their own initiative, the justices did not wait for Gore's lawyers to file an appeal of a circuit court ruling Friday morning that would have allowed the state to certify the election results today. Instead, the court issued its order based on its own motion.

The two-sentence order banned Harris and the canvassing commission from certifying the results of the presidential election until the court allows it. Then the order sent another message to South Florida: Keep counting.

"It is NOT the intent of this order to stop the counting and conveying to the Secretary of State the results of absentee ballots or any other ballots," the order said, with the key word in capital letters.

Until the Supreme Court issued its order, Florida elections officials were prepared to certify the final results today and declare the contest over.

Leon Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled against Gore on Friday morning and determined that Harris did not exceed her authority when she refused to let four counties amend their results.

Broward and Palm Beach had wanted to continue their hand recounts, Miami-Dade had asked to include a handful of Gore votes from a test hand recount, and Collier had wanted to open 25 absentee ballots that they found late.

Earlier this week, Lewis had issued an order outlining how Harris could use her discretion in determining whether to accept amended vote totals after Tuesday's 5 p.m. deadline.

On Friday, the judge issued a two-page order that concluded it "appears that the Secretary has exercised her reasoned judgment to determine what relevant factors and criteria should be considered, applied them to the facts and circumstances pertinent to the individual counties involved, and made her decision. My order requires nothing more."

That pleased the Bush camp.

"We now look forward to the prompt counting and reporting of the limited number of uncounted overseas absentee ballots, so that the process of achieving a final result to the election in Florida is not subject to further delays," Baker said.

But Gore attorney David Boies warned: "Nothing's going to happen over the weekend except maybe some premature (Republican) partying."

Several hours later, the Florida Supreme Court's order offered another legal wrinkle in a week filled with them.

"It's a feeling of a sense of helplessness in there," Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge said of his GOP colleagues, who were meeting behind closed doors Friday afternoon at the Republican Governors' Association meeting in Wesley Chapel. "I want to be hopeful, I want to be optimistic, but the people are just disappointed. We thought there would be some finality."

Patience wearing thin

Gore leads Bush in the national popular vote and in electoral votes. With New Mexico now awarded to the vice president, Gore has won 267 electoral votes from 20 states and the District of Columbia. Bush has won 29 states and has 246 electoral votes. It takes 270 votes to win the presidency, so Florida would put either man over the top.

Opinion polls suggest the public's patience may be wearing thin as the Florida drama plays out.

A new ABC News-Washington Post poll shows most Americans think it is more important that the presidential election be wrapped up in a week than for Bush and Gore to have a chance to make their cases in court.

But most also wanted Harris to wait for the results of the hand recounts before the state certified the results.

It is unclear exactly how long the hand recounts would take to complete.

In Broward, elections officials have spent parts of at least three days counting ballots by hand and are less than one-quarter finished. In Palm Beach, where officials wasted several days because of conflicting opinions from Harris and Attorney General Bob Butterworth, the work has barely started.

In Miami-Dade, which earlier voted not to proceed with a countywide hand recount, the work won't begin in earnest until Monday.

"I don't think by working 24 hours a day we will get it done by Thanksgiving," said Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections David Leahy, who cast the lone vote against starting the recount.

- Staff writers Eric Stirgus, Lucy Morgan, Shelby Oppel, Thomas C. Tobin and David Karp contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Associated Press.

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