By ANNE GEARAN
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Democrats asked Florida’s high court Sunday to set a generous standard for deciding what voters really meant when they punched ballots in the disputed presidential election. Republicans argued it was unfair “to keep the state and the nation on hold” any longer.
Lawyers for Democrat Al Gore argued that previous state court rulings have established the rules for discerning the will of the voter in close elections.
“The Secretary of State and Governor Bush nonetheless urge this Court to construe Florida law to prevent county canvassing boards – which are charged under Florida law with primary responsibility for counting ballots – from utilizing the procedures long established in Florida law … to ascertain the electorate’s will in close elections such as this one,” Gore’s filing said.
“This court should reject that approach.”
Democrats want the Florida Supreme Court to establish a standard to approve or reject ballots in the three counties where hand recounts are under way or scheduled.
“For more than 80 years it has been settled Florida law that a ballot must be counted if the voter’s intent is apparent from an examination of the ballot,” Gore’s lawyers wrote.
Earlier Sunday, lawyers for Republican George W. Bush asked the same court to call an end to the presidential election recount and uphold the statutory deadline for counties to report their results.
The paper war lays the legal foundation for a Monday hearing in Florida’s high court.
Gore’s filing cited the law that provides for manual recounts in close elections, noting that if vote-checkers cannot determine the winner on a particular ballot, the local elections board should “determine the voter’s intent.”
The problem comes when those elections boards decide how to do that – with some boards opting for stricter standards than others, Gore’s lawyers said.
The issue only becomes essential if the Florida court allows hand counts to continue at all.
Republican Bush wants the court to end ballot recounts in three large, Democratic-leaning Florida counties, while Gore wants the counts go on for as long as it takes to finish the job.
If original results from those counties stand, Bush wins Florida and with it the presidential election. Gore hopes the recounts will turn up enough votes to erase Bush’s 930-vote lead.
The Republican candidate argued that election officials in the three South Florida counties could have conducted recounts requested by Democrats and still met the seven-day deadline.
“It would be highly inequitable to keep the state and the nation on hold to finish a manual recount when the responsible officials failed expeditiously even to begin the process,” Bush’s lawyers wrote.
Bush noted that a fourth county where Democrats called for a recount – the much smaller Volusia County to the north – did complete its work by the Nov. 14 deadline, seven days after the election.
“While large counties obviously have more votes to count, it is equally obvious that they have more staff, resources, and money to count those votes,” the 64-page GOP filing argued. “There is not a scintilla of evidence that any of the three counties at issue here were unable to meet the Tuesday deadline – as Volusia County did.”
The case arose from lawsuits that Palm Beach and Broward counties filed last week seeking court guidance on whether and how to conduct hand recounts.
The central question for the seven state Supreme Court justices is whether Florida’s secretary of state, the top elections official, acted properly when she invoked the seven-day deadline and then refused to accept the reasoning of county officials who said they need more time.
Hand recounts continued over the weekend in Palm Beach and Broward counties, with Gore picking up modest gains in unofficial results. A manual recount in Miami-Dade is scheduled to begin Monday and continue until Dec. 1.
Until the state high court rules, it is an open question whether results of those recounts will be added to the state tally. The court, composed of six Democrats and one independent, dealt a setback to Bush on Friday when it barred Secretary of State Katherine Harris from declaring Bush the winner on Saturday, as she had planned.
Some Gore supporters accuse Harris, a Republican who campaigned for Bush, of partisan motives. The Bush camp counters that Harris was right to stick to the deadline set out in state law.
“The secretary of state’s conduct was reasoned and reasonable and was perfectly consistent with (indeed mandated by) the laws of Florida,” Bush’s filing said, adding that the court has set a precedent of deferring to the secretary of state in previous election cases.
“Extraordinary times call, however, for courts to adhere steadfastly to the rule of law,” the Bush papers said. “The rule of law is indispensable if the right of the people to pick their leaders, through a full and fair process according to the rules applicable to all, is to be vindicated.”
Harris and the Bush camp have had a delicate relationship as litigation heated up, both of them reluctant to seem too closely allied.
Harris tried to distance herself from Bush in her own filing Sunday, arguing that while both Bush and Gore are trying to turn state law to their advantage, her duty is to be neutral.
“It is clear, that for the Democrats and the Republicans, the object is to win, and that is understandable. The stakes are very high.”
She also asked the court to let her argue her case separately from Bush on Monday.
A federal appeals court is also considering Bush’s separate constitutional challenge to manual recounts. The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta also dealt Bush a setback on Friday when it declined to put an immediate stop to the counting.
Bush raised some of the same constitutional issues in Sunday’s filing in the Florida court.
Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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