Legal briefs fly in Florida

By RON FOURNIER

Associated Press

The legal skirmishing quickened Sunday in the overtime race for the White House as Republicans warned that painstaking recounts in Democratic-dominated counties expose Florida to political "mischief" and human error. Democrats said they expect America’s next president will be determined "in a matter of days — not weeks, not months."

Updated voting figures in all-important Florida gave Republican George W. Bush a 288-vote margin out of some 6 million votes cast with recounts under way in four jurisdictions. Democrat Al Gore leads in the nationwide popular vote, but the Electoral College tally is so close that whoever takes Florida almost certainly will win the White House.

Both parties previewed their legal strategies for a federal court hearing Mtoday on Bush’s request to block manual recounts. Top Bush adviser James Baker, who described the five-day Florida standoff as "a black mark on our democracy and on our process," said the GOP legal team planned to argue Monday that manual recounts in only four of Florida’s 67 counties would constitute unequal treatment under the 14th Amendment.

Baker said Florida has no uniform standard for reviewing the ballots, and suggested that Democrats who control the contested counties would play favorites.

"It’s all subjective, and therefore it presents terrible problems of human error and potential for mischief," Baker said.

His rival, Gore adviser Warren Christopher, portrayed vote recounts as a routine necessity of democracy.

"If at the end of the day, George Bush has more votes in Florida than we do, certainly the vice president will concede," Christopher said, while leaving open the prospect of court action if recounting ends with Bush still ahead.

Democrats filed court papers Sunday night on behalf of Gore arguing that Florida’s manual ballot law is constitutional. Led by Harvard University law professor Laurence Tribe, Democratic Party attorneys also said Bush’s complaints threatens Florida’s right to run its own elections, according to a Gore legal adviser briefing reporters on condition of anonymity. The document itself was not immediately released.

The marshaling of legal forces sets the stage for one of the most dramatic periods in American political history. A climax could come at the end of this week when final overseas mail-in ballots will be counted and the trailing candidate would be forced to concede or push deeper into uncharted waters.

"By next Friday," said Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., "the pressure on someone is going to be enormous to accept whatever results Florida has reached."

Among the weekend developments:

  • Palm Beach County, Fla., election officials added three dozen additional votes to Gore early Sunday in a marathon mechanical recount. Leaders of the Democratic stronghold then decided to manually check each of the 425,000 votes cast. One top county official said he will try to block the move.

    Officials said their manual recount of precincts representing 1 percent of the vote turned up 19 votes for Gore beyond a machine count. Carol Roberts, a county commissioner and a member of the Palm Beach County canvassing commission, argued that a manual recount of 100 percent of the precincts could potentially change as many as 1,900 additional votes, far more than the existing statewide margin between the two candidates.

  • In Deland, Fla., Volusia County officials began a manual recount of all 184,018 ballots, despite Bush’s pending request to stop it. With Democratic-laden Daytona Beach included, Bush had picked up 33votes with a little under half the precincts recounted.

  • Polk County, Fla., officials, rescanning ballots by machine for a third day, found an additional 104 votes for Bush and seven for Gore. Home to Lakeland, the county went for Bush.

  • Democrats added Osceola County to their list of hand recount requests. The Osceola canvassing board meets today to weigh it. Gore had a small lead over Bush in the 54,000-plus votes cast in the county just south of Orlando. Hispanic voters alleged they were required to produce two forms of identification when only one was required.

  • Bush had a 17-vote lead in New Mexico, where state police have begun impounding ballots from Tuesday’s election. Republican lawyers asked the courts to order protection for early voting and absentee ballots cast statewide.

    A Gore-requested manual recount in Broward County, Fla., another Democratic bastion with Fort Lauderdale as its hub, was to begin today. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in Miami-Dade County, site of what Gore hopes will be a fourth manual recount.

    If Bush fails to win an injunction against the manual counts, a prospect that even GOP officials say is likely, his next step would be fateful. Senior strategists say Bush is likely to seek recounts in some GOP-dominated Florida counties if the Gore-backed recounts and overseas balloting put him in danger of losing the lead.

    Baker threatened to demand recounts in close-voting states won by Gore, such as Iowa, Wisconsin, Oregon — or too-close-to-call New Mexico.

    That may be a lawyer’s bluff, however, because Bush would have to win Oregon, Iowa, New Mexico and Wisconsin to claim the White House without Florida, a long shot given that Gore is leading by 5,000 or more votes in all these states but New Mexico.

    Overseas ballots are due at Florida election offices by midnight Friday. State officials plan to count them quickly, but have not announced a schedule.

    If Gore still trails when those totals are published, he might be inclined to concede.

    Not counting the Sunshine State, Bush carried 29 states for 246 electoral votes. Gore, who added Oregon to his column on Friday, counted 19 states plus the District of Columbia for 262 electoral votes, with 270 needed for victory. Bush led in New Mexico but the state remained too close to call. Its five electoral votes would not be decisive.

    "We’re not talking about a long delay here," Christopher said. "I think it’s a matter of days — not weeks, not months — but days before we reach a result.

    Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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