The Associated Press
The fight for the White House tumbled into the courts Monday as a transfixed nation witnessed the historic entanglement of presidential politics and the judiciary. George W. Bush fought on two fronts to halt recounts that threatened his 388-vote lead in Florida, while Al Gore said neither man should prevail from “a few votes cast in error.”
Amid a whirlwind of political and legal intrigue, Bush’s lawyers failed to win a court order barring manual recounts in Florida — a state whose 25 electoral votes will almost certainly determine the nation’s 43rd president. A federal judge rejected the Bush injunction request, and his team was deciding whether to appeal.
Separately, the state’s top elections official – a Republican who campaigned for Bush – said she would end the recounting at 5 p.m. Tuesday. “The process of counting and recounting the votes cast on Election Day must end,” said Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Gore immediately appealed the ruling, making his first major legal push, and Bush joined the case on behalf of Harris.
“The vice president basically said we should ignore the law so he can overturn the results of this election,” said Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes.
A statewide machine recount trimmed Bush’s lead from 1,784 votes to 388, prompting Gore to push for painstaking manual recounts in four largely Democratic counties. One of those recounts is under way, a second begins Tuesday and a third county will consider the request at a hearing Tuesday.
In a blow to Gore, officials from the fourth county – Broward, in southeast Florida – sampled three precincts Monday and found only four additional votes for the vice president. They rejected Gore’s request to count the rest of the county’s 500,000-plus ballots.
As new vote totals dribbled in from scattered counties and recounts were under consideration in other close-voting states, Gore told reporters outside the White House, “I would not want to win the presidency by a few votes cast in error or misinterpreted or not counted, and I don’t think Governor Bush wants that either.”
Bush made no public appearances at his Texas ranch Monday.
“While time is important, it is even more important that every vote is counted and counted accurately,” the vice president said in his first remarks in five days on the improbably knotted race.
“What is at stake is more important than who wins the presidency,” he said. “What is at stake is the integrity of our democracy.”
Donald Middlebrooks, a federal judge appointed by President Clinton, spoke of the stakes when he predicted the struggle would continue past his rejection of the GOP’s recount injunction request. “I am not under an illusion I am the last word on this,” he said, “and I am rather grateful for that.”
“The process, to sum it up, is selective, standardless, subjective, unreliable and inherently biased,” GOP lawyer Theodore Olson told the judge.
Olson said the recount-by-hand introduced elements of chance and partisan bias to what ought to be a simple and uniform process of checking Florida’s extraordinarily close election result.
Democratic lawyer Bruce Rogow said the hand count was – for better or worse – democracy in action.
“Is it messy? Does it go on and on in some fashion? Yes, yes it does, but that is democracy,” he told Middlebrooks.
Rogow and other Democratic lawyers disputed GOP claims that the hand counts could go on for weeks, saying they will almost certainly be complete by Friday. Overseas absentee ballots are due the same day, setting the stage for a potential climax to the political drama.
A breathtaking day of activity began with a meeting between Harris and two top Gore advisers – former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and campaign chairman William Daley. Holding firm to the Tuesday deadline, Harris said state law does give her leeway for when to certify ballots in natural disasters.
“A close election, regardless of the identity of the candidate,
is not such a circumstance,”
Within the hour, one of the four counties sued in state court for the right to complete its manual recount. Gore’s lawyers joined the suit, accusing Harris of doing the bidding of Bush and his brother Jeb, the Florida governor. Bush’s legal team joined in to defend Harris.
Christopher said Harris’ deadline “looks like a move in the direction of partisan politics and away from the nonpartisan” administration of election law.
Such politically charged rhetoric carried the day, with both sides struggling to control public opinion. Gore and Bush have been advised that there may come a time, shortly after the absentee ballots are counted this weekend, when the trailing candidate needs to concede or risk fallout from a public growing weary of the saga.
Ever-changing voting figures in Florida gave Bush a 388-vote margin out of some 6 million votes cast. The figure does not count the absentee ballots from Floridians living overseas – or the manual recount totals.
Gore leads in the nationwide popular vote by about 200,000 votes, but the Electoral College tally is so close that whoever takes Florida almost certainly will win the White House. Only three times in the nation’s history has a candidate won the popular vote but lost the presidential race, the last time in 1888.
Neither side would acknowledge actively considering a quick exit.
If Bush fails to stop the manual recounts in court, his options would be slim. Senior political strategists have said Bush could seek recounts in some GOP-dominated Florida counties to make up for ground lost.
However, a Republican source familiar with the Bush campaign’s legal strategy said the possibility that Bush would seek to expand voter recounts to other Florida counties was “perceived as unlikely” at this time because deadlines for requesting such recounts have expired in many counties.
Bush’s team also has threatened to demand recounts in close-voting states won by Gore. But without Florida, Bush would have to win Oregon, Iowa and Wisconsin to claim the White House – a long shot given that Gore is leading by 5,000 or more votes in all those states.
Gore could face a similarly tough decision if he does not pull into the lead this week, advisers said. He has not ruled out a number of legal options, including filing suit on behalf of voters in Palm Beach County who say their ballots were confusing.
Not counting Florida, Bush carried 29 states for 246 electoral votes. Gore counted 19 states plus the District of Columbia for 262 electoral votes, with 270 needed for victory. Bush led in New Mexico but the state remained too close to call. Its five electoral votes would not be decisive.
FLORIDA COUNTIES COUNT
• New Polk County figures showed a 100-vote gain for Bush from recount totals originally announced by the county this weekend.
• Volusia County, a Democratic-leaning jurisdiction, awarded Bush a net gain of 33 votes after a full day of recounts. The Deland, Fla., officials also sued in state court to extend the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline. Gore and Bush quickly joined the case as did Palm Beach County.
• Officials in Democratic-leaning Broward County, with Fort Lauderdale as its hub, found only four additional votes for Gore after hand counting 3,892 ballots.
• Officials in Palm Beach County, a Democratic bastion, announced that workers will begin hand counting 425,000 ballots Tuesday and expect to finish Sunday.
• A hearing was scheduled for Tuesday in Miami-Dade County, site of what Gore hopes will be his fourth manual recount. In Osceola County, Democrats withdrew their request for a manual recount.
• Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan said he was asking officials in the four Democratic-leaning counties to stop the recounts until his allies can get in place to monitor the action. Some Democratic voters in Palm Beach County have complained that they might have voted for Buchanan by mistake because of a confusing ballot.
An unofficial Associated Press canvass of the presidential vote in Florida showed Bush with 2,910,299 votes and Gore with 2,909,911. Those numbers reflect the latest figures from Palm Beach County.
On Friday, Harris said Bush had 2,910,074 votes to Gore’s 2,909,114, a difference of 960, with Palm Beach still to be recounted.