Ruling for Gore, Florida court sends presidential race into recount

By TERENCE HUNT

Associated Press

In a stunning decision that resurrected Al Gore’s presidential candidacy, the Florida Supreme Court ordered an immediate count of the "undervote" across Florida and put the vice president within a razor-thin 154 votes of George W. Bush’s in the race for the White House.

Bush’s top attorney said he would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and the campaign filed an emergency petition with the Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta asking that counting be stopped before it begins — until the nation’s highest court can settle the issue.

As relief lifted Democrats from days of despair, Gore advisers said they fully expected the vice president to overtake Bush in the Florida vote count, at which time they would begin pressuring the Texas governor to concede defeat much as Bush had attempted to do with Gore.

Florida’s justices were split 4-3 in ordering the new count, and Bush attorney James H. Baker III said the decision "could ultimately disenfranchise Florida’s votes in the Electoral College." Florida is required to certify its slate of 25 electors on Tuesday and the Republican-controlled Legislature is meeting to make sure those electors are pledged to Bush. Congress might ultimately be forced to decide whether to accept votes chosen through the court battle in Gore’s favor, or a slate picked by the legislature for Bush.

Baker seized on the dissent of Chief Justice Charles T. Wells who wrote that the ruling "propels this country and this state into an unprecedented and unnecessary constitutional crisis."

The court majority said so-called undervotes — meaning ballots on which there was no vote for president — must be checked in all Florida counties "where such a recount has not yet occurred." Democrats believe the undercounts are concentrated in 17 counties that use punchcard ballots.

Republicans expressed outrage. "This judicial aggression must not stand," House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said.

Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley called the decision "a victory for fairness and accountability and our democracy itself." He said the count would insure that "America will know with certainty who has really won the presidency."

Baker told reporters, "This is what happens when for the first time in modern history a candidate resorts to lawsuits to try to overturn the outcome of an election for president." He said it was "a sad day for Florida, it is a sad day for the nation and it is sad for our democracy." He then announced the GOP legal steps.

The Republican-dominated Florida legislature met Friday to start a process of picking an Electoral College slate for Bush, setting up a potential constitutional clash should Gore overtake Bush in the count. "All of these matters should be resolved by our independent courts – not by legislators and politicians," said the Gore campaign statement.

"No elected official can ignore the full count of a state endorsed by the state’s highest courts, and we’ll have that in a few days," said Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani.

Republicans considered seeking an emergency order to stop the recount while asking the U.S. Supreme Court for a final ruling settling the election. Both the Gore and Bush campaigns dispatched dozens of aides to protect their interests in recounts that could cover as many as 45,000 ballots in dozens of Florida’s 67 counties.

"Two strikes, two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and Gore gets a hit," exulted Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, one of the Democrats who had said in advance that an adverse ruling from the Florida Supreme Court could spell the end of the vice president’s hopes.

There have been many topsy turvy days since the election deadlock of Nov. 7 but surely none so turbulent as this. Friday was widely expected to decide the election in Bush’s favor and for Gore the day began ominously when Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature convened to protect Bush’s state-certified claim on the White House. Within hours, the vice president suffered another setback when two Florida judges rejected Democratic challenges to disqualify 25,000 absentee ballot challenges in Republican-leaning Seminole and Martin counties.

With hopes fading, dispirited Democrats openly suggested Gore would concede if the Florida Supreme Court rejected his request for recounts in South Florida. The court, a day earlier, had seemed skeptical about Gore’s appeal and in a last-minute legal maneuver, Bush’s lawyers filed an unusual clarification, telling the seven justices they don’t have authority to grant Gore the manual recounts he seeks.

When the ruling came, it was a 4-3 decision in Gore’s favor. "I guess it’s time to do some counting," Leon County elections supervisor Ion Sancho said. Court spokesman Craig Waters said, "Because time is of the essence, the recount shall commence immediately."

In Jacksonville, the Duval County canvassing board met to determine its next move. Officials there have some 5,000 undervotes to count out of 291,000 cast, said Terry Faulkner of the Supervisor of Elections office.

In Liberty County, 29 undervotes were buried in a pile of nearly 2,600 ballots.

Recounts were completed earlier in Volusia and Broward counties, and the results incorporated into the results that Secretary of State Katherine Harris certified. A partial recount was completed in Miami-Dade County before the local canvassing board suspended its work. In addition, Palm Beach County officials completed a recount, but submitted the results after the deadline that Harris had been enforcing.

The high court ruling trimmed Bush’s certified 537-vote lead to 154 votes by ordering that the earlier tallies in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade be added to the totals of each candidate.

The opinion overturned a ruling Wednesday by Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls. In a scene repeated throughout federal offices in Washington at 4 p.m., a handful of aides watching television with Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder on the fourth floor of the Justice Department let out a simultaneous "Whoop!" when the Florida court decision was announced.

A statement released by the vice president’s campaign said that Gore and running mate Joseph Lieberman were gratified by the decision.

Ruling jointly in cases involving 25,000 absentee ballots, Circuit Court Judges Nikki Clark and Terry Lewis said that despite irregularities in ballot applications — the basis of the Democrats’ challenge in Seminole and Martin counties — "neither the sanctity of the ballots nor the integrity of the elections has been compromised."

Gore was not directly involved in those cases, and his advisers said they had never counted on them succeeding.

"This is the definitive day," Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., said as he awaited the Supreme Court decision. He said that if Gore could not win there, "Then this battle is over." Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., said that if Gore is turned down, "I would expect that he would concede today."

Gore spent two hours at the White House, working in his West Wing office. "Howdy, it is a beautiful day, isn’t it," he said, ignoring reporters’ questions about his prospects.

Bush was in Austin, meeting with advisers at the governor’s mansion and conducting a telephone conference call with running mate Dick Cheney and others at the Bush transition headquarters just outside Washington.

"We are hopeful that we’ll finally see finality when it comes to this election," the governor said. "It’s time to get on with America’s business. But we’ll see what the courts decide today."

Asked if he thought there would be a president-elect by day’s end, Bush raised the possibility of the Florida Supreme Court ordering a recount. "We’re prepared if need be to take our case back to the (U.S.) Supreme Court," Bush said. "I hope that doesn’t take place."

Bush said that if he wins the presidency, he would be ready to name his White House staff quickly and lay out a timetable for announcing his Cabinet.

In Tallahassee, the 160-member legislature opened with partisan fireworks. Republicans presented resolutions in the House and Senate that would ratify the 25 Bush electors who were named when Harris certified him the statewide winner on Nov. 26.

House Speaker Tom Feeney said the lawmakers must act because there has been no "timely and universally accepted outcome" to the Nov. 7 election. Senate Democratic Leader Tom Rossin shot back, "I believe this is illegal, unconstitutional and plain wrong." Democrats complained that Bush’s campaign was calling the shots.

"Senators, no matter how bad you want the governor of Texas to be president, we cannot substitute our will for the will of the people," said Rossin. "Our constituents sent us here to represent them, not to vote for them."

Both houses adjourned within an hour, reserving Monday for hearings on the resolutions.

Despite their protests, outnumbered Democrats are powerless to stop the Republicans. Bush’s team acknowledged that its lawyers had provided legal advice to legislators. "No one could be surprised by that," Bush spokesman Tucker Eskew said.

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

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