TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—In the battle for the presidency, Florida courts issued a series of rulings yesterday that favored Texas Gov. George W. Bush's bid and gave Vice President Al Gore the chance to prove he won the race.
Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis' ruling, perhaps the most significant of the day, was claimed as a victory by Republicans and Democrats in their quest to win the state's crucial 25 electoral votes, the key to the White House.
The rulings mean that the preliminary vote tally, announced in early evening by Harris -- 2,910,492 for Bush, 2,910,192 for Gore - could change in the coming week. They also set the stage for the legal wrangling to continue and possibly reach the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
From Miami to Tallahassee, the state capital, yesterday's developments in the disputed presidential election occurred in the courts. The focus was on whether 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 to turn in vote totals. Harris had imposed that deadline, citing state election law.
Last night, Harris ordered officials of those four counties to provide her, in writing, with "the facts and circumstances that would cause these counties to believe a change should be made" in the current vote totals. Those statements are due in her office at 2 p.m. today.
Unless "these facts and circumstances ... justify an amendment" to the state totals announced last night, Harris said, the state Canvassing Board will certify the results, which give Bush a 300-vote lead over Gore. The absentee ballots will be counted and certified, then the winner announced, Harris said.
The state's Republican elections chief and local county boards were engaged in a tug of war over whether to keep counting. The Florida attorney general, a Democrat, weighed in, then judges in three counties.
The Republicans' high-powered legal team filed a notice that will appeal Monday's decision by a federal judge in Miami, who ruled that the battle should stay in the state courts.
The Democrats' legal experts waited anxiously to see whether Lewis would order an extension of the state deadline for turning in vote totals, which would 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 candidate could challenge the state's certified vote count if Harris rejected ballots that 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 manual vote would make the difference in the Florida race.
Meanwhile, judges in Palm Beach and Broward counties gave their election boards approval to continue manually counting election returns, rejecting an earlier claim by Harris that to do so was illegal. Palm Beach County, the scene of an extensive recount because of voter complaints, said it would resume its hand count today.
Volusia County concluded its count with gains for Gore. Miami-Dade began a sample hand count yesterday in three overwhelmingly Democratic precincts to determine whether there were irregularities. Broward County decided Monday against a manual recount, but officials there were awaiting legal opinions yesterday 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 the local election boards time to "finish those [hand] counts in a fair, accurate and timely manner."
"These hand counts would be done by now or in the near future if there weren't so many legal hurdles put [forth] by the secretary of state's office and the Republican legal team," Backus said. "The bottom line is, we think Americans 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 me that victory to them means any way to prolong this process and keep counting ballots until they get the result they want," she told the Associated Press.
The Bush campaign has fought manual recounts at every turn, most recently Monday in U.S. District Court in Miami. Republican lawyers argued that hand counts should be stopped because they are unreliable and subject to partisan elections officials. But Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks ruled that a challenge at this stage belonged in state courts.