By ANNE GEARAN
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Confusion reigned in Florida courthouses today, as Democrats pushed legal challenges and imported a top litigator in an 11th-hour drive to keep recounting the state’s crucial presidential ballots.
The legal shoving match between George W. Bush and Al Gore centered on a 5 p.m. deadline to count votes in the presidential election – and on what would or would not follow.
The first showdown came with a Solomonic decision from a state judge in Tallahassee. Circuit Judge Terry Lewis upheld the deadline but held out the possibility that the state would accept late returns from recounts in four heavily Democratic portions of the state.
A spokeswoman for Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris said she would consider late filings, but it was unclear what criteria she might use.
At issue were recounts by human eyes and hands that Democrats hoped would turn up more votes for Gore in the aftermath of the unresolved Nov. 7 election that has come down to who wins Florida’s 25 electoral votes.
Bush led Gore by 286 votes in Florida in the unofficial AP tally after a Volusia County hand count today added 98 votes for Gore and Broward County another four for Gore.
Minutes before the deadline expired, Volusia County appealed Lewis’ ruling to a mid-level Florida appeals court with the expectation that the state’s highest court, the Florida Supreme Court, would hear it.
A spokesman for the Gore campaign said Democrats support the appeal, although they believe Lewis’ ruling could help Gore.
Keeping the count going “was our principal objective in bringing that case,” Gore adviser Warren Christopher said. “We are counting on the four counties to move ahead with their hand counts in accordance with this decision.”
“The veil has been lifted,” said new Gore lawyer David Boies, the litigator who helped win the government’s Microsoft antitrust case.
The recount in Palm Beach County was on hold pending resolution of conflicting legal advice from Republican state election officials and Florida’s Democratic attorney general.
Clay Roberts, director of the division of elections, issued an advisory opinion today saying the county did not have a right to conduct a hand recount of ballots. Attorney General Robert Butterworth immediately issued a conflicting opinion.
Miami-Dade County officials said were conducting a partial recount.
Boies held out the possibility the vice president’s campaign might file suit later if Democrats think the secretary of state mishandles vote tallies submitted after the deadline.
Donna Blanton, a lawyer representing Harris, said Harris expected all 67 Florida counties to file their election numbers on time today. State law says counties have a week after the election to get the numbers to state officials.
“If any county canvassing board subsequently desires to amend their return, the secretary will evaluate that request on applicable facts and circumstances,” Blanton said.
State officials say Lewis’ ruling means they can proceed on schedule to a final vote certification by Saturday. That is the day after a deadline for absentee ballots mailed in from overseas.
Meanwhile, the Republicans filed notice that they may appeal a separate constitutional challenge to the hand recounts. The GOP lost that request for an injunction in federal court in Miami on Monday. The notice filed today with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta was “to keep our options open,” Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said.
Also, numerous voters have sued separately over alleged voting irregularities in Palm Beach. Celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz represents some of them.
As for the 5 p.m. deadline, Democrats say Harris is a partisan Republican – she campaigned for Bush – who decided to stick to the letter of Florida law in order to pull out a squeaker of a victory for him.
Lewis ruled that there was nothing in state law to prevent Harris from considering late totals, and warned her in strong language that she would need good reason to ignore them.
“To determine ahead of time that such returns will be ignored … is not the exercise of discretion. It is the abdication of that discretion,” Lewis wrote.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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