The Associated Press
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — George W. Bush’s lead over Al Gore in crucial Florida shrank to fewer than 300 votes by unofficial count Thursday with allegations of irregularities swirling and ballots from overseas residents still to be counted.
Recount results from 66 of the state’s 67 counties gave Republican Bush a lead of 229 votes out of nearly 6 million cast, according to an unofficial tally by The Associated Press. The original “final” margin had been reported at 1,784.
AP called each county election official to get the final recount total for each candidate in their county.
The official recount lagged behind, and Secretary of State Katherine Harris told an early evening news conference that it could be as late as next Tuesday – a week after the election – before the state has certified ballot results from all 67 counties. She also pointed out that it would take even longer – at least until Nov. 17 – to tabulate ballots cast by thousands of Floridians overseas and postmarked by Election Day.
Harris said Bush had 2,909,661 votes to 2,907,877 for Gore, a difference of 1,784.
One election board member, Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, defended the pace of the recount.
“Nobody ever said that democracy was simple or efficient,” he said. “But this is democracy in action.” He said anyone wanting simplicity should look to the south, to Cuba, a reference to the dictatorship of Fidel Castro.
The Gore campaign criticized the ballots in use in Palm Beach County as confusing, and asked for a hand count of votes cast there and in three other counties. Palm Beach County agreed to hand-count ballots in three precincts on Saturday.
In the meantime a circuit judge issued a preliminary injunction barring the canvassing commission in the county from certifying the final recount results until a hearing is held Tuesday.
That was in response to a legal challenge filed with the support of Democrats who say a poor ballot design in the county led some Gore supporters to inadvertently mark their ballots for Pat Buchanan.
The court order said the ballot was designed and printed in such a way that voters were deprived of their right to freely express their will.
“We expect legal challenges,” said Clay Roberts of the Department of Elections, refusing to comment further.
Harris said that thus far 53 of Florida’s 67 counties have forwarded recount materials to the state. She said the board count was behind the AP tally because the board is only reporting “those that are unofficially certified.”
It was unclear how many ballots from Floridians living overseas were still uncounted – in fact still unreceived.
An informal survey of 28 of the 67 election supervisors found that they had mailed just over 7,000, that a little less than half had been returned and no information was available on how many had been counted. That tally did not include some of the state’s largest counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.
Harris said she had been glued to her television Thursday watching the unofficial recounts, and “I hope they’re going to be a lot more accurate than the other night.”
That was a reference to television networks that prematurely declared Gore the winner in Florida and then reversed course and said Bush had won the state – and with it the White House.
In addition to the partial recount-by-hand in Palm Beach County, the board in Broward County arranged a meeting for Friday to discuss the Gore campaign’s request for a manual recount there.
Gore campaign manager William Daley said courts may find the Florida result “an injustice unparalleled in our history.” Bush chairman Don Evans countered, “The Democrats who are politicizing and distorting these events risk doing so at the expense of our democracy.”
More than a thousand Gore supporters demonstrated outside a government building in downtown West Palm Beach, demanding another election in the county.
They said the confusing configuration of their ballot had cost the vice president votes.
“Gore got more,” they chanted.
The Gore campaign contended the ballots in Palm Beach County were illegal. Reform Party candidate Buchanan said “ineptitude” in ballot design may have caused many Democrats to vote for him inadvertently.
James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state brought in by Bush to represent his interests in Florida, said, “That ballot was posted, as required by Florida law, in newspapers and public places all over the state of Florida.
“And we haven’t heard one gripe about that ballot until after the voting took place.”
Across the state, other allegations of voting improprieties ranged from missing ballots to problems with tabulations and intimidation of black voters.
The Gore campaign requested that some 1.78 million ballots be hand-counted in Palm Beach, Volusia, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
Eight lawsuits challenging the results were filed in state or federal court, including six in Palm Beach County and two in Tallahassee, where race discrimination was alleged.
The first case to reach a judge was dropped by the plaintiff in federal court in West Palm Beach.
In one of the other cases, Palm Beach voter Kenneth Horowitz, owner of the Miami Fusion soccer team and a registered independent, filed a lawsuit along with two other people.
The suit contended poll workers told voters they had only five minutes to cast their ballots and anyone who took longer would have his ballot tossed out.
Officials in the heavily Democratic county rejected 19,120 ballots on election night because more than one presidential candidate was selected. Gore supporters blamed the ballot design.
Confusion arose from the way the county’s punch-card style ballot was laid out.
Candidates were listed in two columns, separated by holes for punching.
The controversy prompted an emotional midday demonstration in West Palm Beach. Democrats noted that the 3,407 votes for Buchanan were by far the most of any Florida county, and almost 20 percent of his total vote in the state.
“Our vote was stolen,” Gore supporter Don Liftman said. “Three thousand Buchanan supporters in a county full of Jewish condo residents? I don’t think so.”