Judge won't halt recount

Sun Reporters

In the battle for the presidency, Florida courts issueda series of rulings yesterday that favored Texas Gov. George W. Bush's bid andgave Vice President Al Gore the chance to prove he won the race.

Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis' ruling, perhaps the most significant of theday, was claimed as a victory by Republicans and Democrats in their quest towin the state's crucial 25 electoral votes, the key to the White House.

Sitting in Tallahassee, Lewis ruled that Florida's 67 counties wererequired to turn in their election results by yesterday's 5 p.m. deadline, acontention of the Bush camp. He also ruled that Florida Secretary of StateKatherine Harris, the state elections chief who opposed continued recounts,has the authority to accept or reject late returns "but may not do soarbitrarily."

The rulings mean that the preliminary vote tally, announced in earlyevening by Harris -- 2,910,492 for Bush, 2,910,192 for Gore - could change inthe coming week. They also set the stage for the legal wrangling to continueand possibly reach the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

From Miami to Tallahassee, the state capital, yesterday's developments inthe disputed presidential election occurred in the courts. The focus was onwhether to halt or continue the manual recounts of votes in Palm Beach,Volusia, Miami-Dade and Broward counties in view of the 5 p.m. deadline toturn in vote totals. Harris had imposed that deadline, citing state electionlaw.

Last night, Harris ordered officials of those four counties to provide her,in writing, with "the facts and circumstances that would cause these countiesto believe a change should be made" in the current vote totals. Thosestatements are due in her office at 2 p.m. today.

Unless "these facts and circumstances ... justify an amendment" to thestate totals announced last night, Harris said, the state Canvassing Boardwill certify the results, which give Bush a 300-vote lead over Gore. Theabsentee ballots will be counted and certified, then the winner announced,Harris said.

The state's Republican elections chief and local county boards were engagedin a tug of war over whether to keep counting. The Florida attorney general, aDemocrat, weighed in, then judges in three counties.

The Republicans' high-powered legal team filed a notice that will appealMonday's decision by a federal judge in Miami, who ruled that the battleshould stay in the state courts.

The Democrats' legal experts waited anxiously to see whether Lewis wouldorder an extension of the state deadline for turning in vote totals, whichwould have allowed manual counts to go on.

Shortly before 1 p.m., they got the word.

In a reminder to both sides, the judge noted that an unsuccessful candidatecould challenge the state's certified vote count if Harris rejected ballotsthat were "sufficient to change or place in doubt the result of the election."That reminder seemed to underscore the Gore camp's contention that a manualvote would make the difference in the Florida race.

Meanwhile, judges in Palm Beach and Broward counties gave their electionboards approval to continue manually counting election returns, rejecting anearlier claim by Harris that to do so was illegal. Palm Beach County, thescene of an extensive recount because of voter complaints, said it wouldresume its hand count today.

Volusia County concluded its count with gains for Gore. Miami-Dade began asample hand count yesterday in three overwhelmingly Democratic precincts todetermine whether there were irregularities. Broward County decided Mondayagainst a manual recount, but officials there were awaiting legal opinionsyesterday before deciding to resume a full hand count.

The recounts could tip the balance in favor of Gore, both sides believe.

Jenny Backus, a Democratic spokeswoman, said Lewis' decision gives thelocal election boards time to "finish those [hand] counts in a fair, accurateand timely manner."

"These hand counts would be done by now or in the near future if thereweren't so many legal hurdles put [forth] by the secretary of state's officeand the Republican legal team," Backus said. "The bottom line is, we thinkAmericans want a fair and accurate count."

Mindy Tucker, the Bush campaign spokeswoman, scorned the Democrats'assertion that Lewis' ruling was favorable to their cause. "It appears to methat victory to them means any way to prolong this process and keep countingballots until they get the result they want," she told the Associated Press.

The Bush campaign has fought manual recounts at every turn, most recentlyMonday in U.S. District Court in Miami. Republican lawyers argued that handcounts should be stopped because they are unreliable and subject to partisanelections officials. But Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks ruled that a challengeat this stage belonged in state courts.

The decision by Bush lawyers to proceed with a challenge of the manualrecounts by filing a notice of appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appealsin Atlanta puts the Florida dispute back on a possible track toward theSupreme Court.

Until that notice was filed late in the afternoon, the legal wrangling wasconfined to state courts, and on state law issues alone, something the SupremeCourt would have no authority to review.

Various federal constitutional issues have arisen as the legal feud hascontinued, but those are confined to the federal case now on its way toAtlanta, where the appeals court could take its first action on the casetoday.

The frenzy of yesterday's legal and political wrangling was most evident inPalm Beach County, where the Canvassing Board arrived at 7 a.m. to oversee themanual count of more than 460,000 votes. But it was stopped before it started.

A letter from L. Clayton Roberts, Harris' election director and aRepublican, warned that a manual recount was illegal. The board also had anopinion from the state's top lawyer, Attorney General Robert Butterworth, aDemocrat who led Gore's Florida campaign. The opinion disputed Roberts' claim.

The board, which convened on a makeshift stage in a parking lot, decided toask the Florida Supreme Court for direction.

The next turn of events came at 3:05 p.m., when Palm Beach County CircuitJudge Jorge Labarga gave the board the go-ahead to begin the hand count. Healso lifted an injunction that had kept the board from certifying its electionresults.

Labarga's ruling was hard to come by. Five other judges refused to hear thecase, including one who had been overheard making disparaging remarks aboutDemocrats.

A judge having ruled, the Palm Beach elections board decided to proceed. "Idon't think it would be wise to sit ... and wait for direction from thatcourt," said Judge Charles Burton, the board's chairman, referring to thestate's highest court. "If we start and the Supreme Court tells us to stop,that's what we'll have to do."

Board attorney Denise Dytrych cautioned members to wait and not to unlockthe ballot boxes for what would be their fourth vote count.

"What happens [if we don't wait]?" asked Commissioner Carol Roberts. "Do wego to jail, because I'm willing to go to jail."

Cheers erupted from a crowd of sign-waving people who had gathered in theparking lot to watch the events unfold. But Burton scolded, "This is not apolitical rally."

Forty minutes before the 5 p.m. state deadline, the county certified itselection results, which were overwhelmingly for Gore. The board is set tobegin the tedious hand recount at 7 a.m. today. The recount, which officialssaid could take a week to complete, is being conducted at the county'sEmergency Operations Center, a hurricane shelter built to withstand 150 mphwinds. But it's never taken a direct hit like this.

Lyle Denniston of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.

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