By LINDA DEUTSCH
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday night that state election officials must accept amended presidential returns as late as Sunday or Monday.
The court ruling means Secretary of State Katherine Harris may not certify the result of the contested election between Al Gore and George W. Bush until that time. The results are due by 5 p.m. Sunday if the Secretary of State’s Office is open for business on that day, or 9 a.m. Monday if it is not.
A statement read by court spokesman Craig Waters did not specify whether – or under what guidelines – manual recounts might continue until the new deadline.
Bush holds a 930-vote lead in the official but uncertified vote tallies from Election Day, with overseas absentee ballots included. Gore has slowly been eating into that lead in recent days as recounts have proceeded at his urging in three Democratic counties.
The decision was a boost for the Gore team.
“We will move forward now with a full, fair and accurate count of the ballots in question,” the vice president said shortly after the ruling was issued. “I don’t know what those ballots will show. I don’t know whether Governor Bush or I will prevail.”
The Bush campaign attacked the ruling in sharp language, with former Secretary of State James Baker alleging the justices had “changed the rules” of the election and “invented a new system for counting the election results.”
Baker made clear he was not ruling out any legal challenges. In addition, he hinted broadly that the Florida Legislature, with both houses under GOP control, might attempt to pass legislation to “affirm the original rules.”
The Legislature is not currently scheduled to meet until next month.
Waters said the decision was based on the court’s long-standing view that “the right of the people to cast their votes is the paramount concern overriding all others.”
The 42-page opinion gives the Gore campaign just five days to overtake Bush’s slender lead.
Waters did not directly address the issue of the recounts in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. Nor did his brief statement say whether the court had ruled on a Democratic request for the issuance of uniform standards that might guide the local canvassing boards conducting the recounts.
Nor did he say whether the ruling addressed another controversy in the overtime election – the rejection of hundreds of overseas absentee ballots cast by armed forces personnel. Many of them were lacking postmarks and were thrown out late last week as a result of Democratic challenges.
But in the days since, Democrats have retreated under criticism from Republicans and expressed a desire to have as many of these votes counted as possible.
The court issued its ruling less than 30 hours after oral arguments concluded on Monday, a remarkably speedy timetable that was testament to the importance of the dispute.
In legal filings earlier in the day, the Bush lawyers contended the court was “without power” to set standards for the counting of ballots by county canvassing boards.
The issue of what rules should be applied to such things as “dimpled ballots” – those with indentations but not punched through – was raised in oral arguments Monday and also was addressed in the response brief to the court from Gore’s lawyers. Republican Bush’s legal team said it was too late, that the issue should have been raised earlier.
Bush’s lawyers suggested that the court should not even address the issue of a voter’s intent when punching a ballot.
But Al Gore needs the dimples.
With Gore trailing Bush by 930 votes, Democrats are pressuring election officials in three South Florida counties to count dimpled chad ballots as valid votes.
Dimpled ballots are those on which a punch card has a bump, as if someone meant or tried to punch out the perforation to indicate their choice for president.
They are not being counted in Broward or Palm Beach counties. And in Miami-Dade County, some are being counted, some aren’t, depending on whether the local canvassing board members can determine the voter’s intent. Broward is setting the dimpled ballots aside for later consideration. A Palm Beach County judge plans to take up the dimple issue toWday.
Experts in voting behavior say that because the three counties recounting ballots all lean to Democrats, if dimpled ballots are counted, many are likely to favor Gore.
Counting the ballots, dimpled or not, continues to rankle Republicans.
The Bush brief said there was “an extremely tight time frame for consideration of these issues,” suggesting officials had already missed the last deadline for certifying the election in time to allow it to be contested properly.
Bush’s lawyers said state law requires a 22- to 27-day period for candidates to contest certified results, meaning the state should have certified the vote by Monday of this week “at the very latest.”
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the Republican candidate’s brother, said he expected a conclusion soon.
“This is going to come to an end, and the rule of law will prevail, and we’ll move on,” he said.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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