Showdown in Florida

By ANNE GEARAN

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Republican Florida official overseeing the state’s chaotic presidential vote tally laid down a Wednesday afternoon deadline for Democratic strongholds to justify why they should be allowed to keep counting.

A state judge ruled earlier in the day that the state should collect returns from all 67 counties by 5 p.m., as required under Florida law. The state said that count gives the election — and perhaps the White House — to Texas Gov. George W. Bush by 300 votes.

At the same time, the judge said counties still recounting ballots by hand at Democratic request may be able to make a case for filing those totals late.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’ ruling contained a harsh warning for Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and drew new bounds for both sides in the ongoing legal shoving match.

Both sides found something to like in the Solomonic ruling, but that did not stop one heavily Democratic county from appealing.

"The veil has been lifted," said new Gore lawyer David Boies, the litigator who helped win the government’s Microsoft antitrust case.

Gore partisans said the recounts they requested will go forward, though only Palm Beach County was scheduled to keep reviewing ballots on Wednesday. Volusia County had completed a full manual recount; Broward County was holding off on a decision about whether to order a full hand count.

Democrats hope those recounts by human eye and hand will turn up additional votes for their candidate.

Harris set down a 2 p.m. EST deadline Wednesday for election officials in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties to justify why she ought to accept late totals that would come in after Tuesday’s 5 p.m. EST deadline.

"It’s another attempt in many ways to put a burden on people who are terribly taxed right now," Gore campaign chairman William Daley said.

If Harris rejects appeals for more time, Democrats could sue.

Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said the Texas governor is a three-time winner in Florida, counting the Nov. 7 election, an automatic recount done last week and the totals certified to the state capital in Tallahassee Tuesday.

An unknown additional number of overseas absentee ballots remain to be counted by Friday night.

The state is critical to determining the winner of the 2000 presidential election. Victory by either Bush or Gore would give the 270 votes needed to fashion a majority in the Electoral College.

In Volusia County, before completing their count, county officials appealed Lewis’ ruling to a midlevel Florida appeals court with the expectation that the state’s highest court, the Florida Supreme Court, would hear it.

Separately, Palm Beach sent appeal documents to the state Supreme Court seeking clarification of conflicting legal guidance on their recount. The county planned to begin a broad recount Wednesday morning.

Miami-Dade County hand counted three precincts Tuesday night and awarded Gore a net gain of six votes. But the board voted 2-1 against ordering a full manual recount, rejecting a request by Democrats.

On yet another legal front, the GOP filed notice that it plans to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that allowed the recounts to go forward. The GOP claims they are unconstitutional since they mean some voters are treated differently depending on where they live. The case could be heard in the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals as soon as Wednesday.

Numerous voters have sued separately over alleged voting irregularities in Palm Beach. Celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz represents some of them.

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.

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.

Elsewhere:

? The Democratic Party filed a motion in state court arguing that Broward County should be ordered to conduct a full hand count of its 588,000 ballots. The motion said the decision by the county canvassing board not to conduct such a recount was based on an erroneous opinion by Harris, who said a manual recount could only be conducted if the board found a problem with the computer.

? In West Palm Beach, a judge considered the lawsuits of voters seeking a new vote in their county. The voters argue the punch-card ballots they were given on Election Day may have confused them enough to mistakenly vote for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan when they intended to vote for Gore.

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

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