Al Gore won his fight Thursday to expand manual recounts in Florida, even as advisers said he likely won’t overtake George W. Bush’s 300-vote lead before the Republican secretary of state certifies their marathon White House race Saturday. GOP lawyers asked courts to stop the counting and “the disintegration” of America’s presidential election system.
The vice president and his team aggressively defended the hand recounts in Democratic-leaning counties, laying the groundwork for Gore’s case to continue the vote-counting if he fails to pull ahead of the Texas governor before the secretary of state’s deadline.
“The choice really is whether the voters are going to decide this election by having every vote count or whether that process is going to be short-circuited without all the votes being examined,” Gore said in a radio interview.
The Florida Supreme Court later handed Gore a modest victory, authorizing officials in Palm Beach and Broward counties to recount ballots by hand. The effort, which officials said will take about six days, had been stalled on order of Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
The ruling did not say whether any votes found in the recounts can be added to Gore’s totals — the heart of a legal clash that has thrust the presidential campaign into limbo. The justices are all Democratic appointees.
Within minutes, Palm Beach election officials decided to start recounting Thursday night. After two full days of counting in 86 of 609 precincts, Gore had gained 21 votes in Broward County on the state’s southeast coast.
“The Florida Supreme Court has spoken, the counts can continue,” said Gore chairman William Daley.
Bush supports the secretary of state’s weekend deadline and wants a declaration of a Florida winner after the last overseas absentee ballots are due Friday at midnight.
“Once these votes are counted, we will know the final result of Florida’s election and the nation’s election,” Bush campaign chairman Don Evans said. “Win or lose, this election will be over.”
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who thus far has been unable to deliver the state for his brother, agreed: “Saturday morning we’ll know who won the state,” he said.
Democrats begged to differ.
Gore’s attorneys asked a state judge in Tallahassee to have hand recounts rolled into the election totals, even if the vote-counting isn’t finished by Friday night. They argued that Harris, a Bush supporter, acted arbitrarily when she refused to update vote totals with the results of manual recounts after a Tuesday deadline.
Bush looked to a federal appeals court in Atlanta to shut down the canvassing altogether, calling manual recounts inaccurate and prone to political mischief. Both sides said the case could be headed to U.S. Supreme Court.
“Eight days after Florida’s presidential vote, the entire nation is witnessing the disintegration of a process that was designed to elect America’s president,” reads the Bush brief in the federal appeal. “The Florida manual recount process is being used to eliminate any possibility of an orderly, rational and final end to the election.”
The federal court also agreed to consider a related case filed by three Bush supporters from Brevard County. They claim their rights are being violated because their counties are not recanvassing votes by hand.
Some scenes were chaotic, bordering on the comical.
Broward County sheriff’s deputies took custody of 78 tiny bits of paper after Republicans demanded that the scraps be held as evidence of potential ballot tampering. The paper, from the holes in punchout ballots, was placed by police in an envelope marked, “Crime. Found Property.”
Joked elections supervisor Jane Carroll, herself a Republican: “Let the chads fall as they may.”
Later, a lawyer burst into the county’s hurricane emergency center and served subpoenas on startled county election officials. “The nation is watching you,” said Republican activist William Scherer, who filed a lawsuit on behalf of fellow attorney Steven Stoll.
About 100 protesters, from groups including the NAACP and the Sierra Club, gathered at the West Palm Beach counting station, where the canvassing board was waiting for court guidance before recounting. The crowd chanted, “Hand count” and “Every vote counts.”
Some held signs that read, “Honk for dimples” – a reference to not-quite-perforated ballots.
The vice president began the day 300 votes behind Bush in Florida, with about 2,600 overseas absentee ballots to be counted Friday night. Gore has hoped the additional hand recounting would vault him ahead of the Texas governor in the race for the state’s 25 electoral votes and the White House.
Both sides believe that a majority of the overseas ballots will go to Bush. Further complicating Gore’s political situation, top advisers said Thursday the slow-going recounts were unlikely to produce enough new votes to overtake Bush by Friday at midnight.
They blamed GOP legal tactics for delaying the hand counts.
The prospect of trailing Bush at the deadline intensified Gore’s fight in the courts of law and public opinion. A recent poll showed that seven out of 10 Americans said a winner should be declared once the overseas ballots are added to the totals.
The Democratic strategy: speak early and often to defend hand counting – and attack Harris.
Vice presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman said voters must witness a “reasonable and just conclusion” to the election “or else this country will go into the new century divided with a president who does not have legitimacy of support.”
Asked on an ABC radio show if the election was being stolen from him, Gore said, “I would discourage use of that word because, again, however it comes out, we’re going to come behind the winner.” He cautioned that there are “high emotions on the other side,” too.
Lieberman said legal action would be “the American way,” refusing to rule out a last-resort lawsuit over voter irregularities. Lieberman said he was “stunned” by Harris’ decision to turn aside hand recount totals after Tuesday’s deadline.
Bush let a deadline lapse to contest his narrow loss in Iowa, making Florida his only hope of winning 270 electoral votes and the presidency.
Bush theoretically could have made up for the 25 lost electoral votes by winning Wisconsin (11), Oregon (7) and Iowa (7) in recounts, but that was a remote possibility.
Hoping to claim the moral high ground, Evans said, “Governor Bush believes the time has arrived for our nation to begin the process of moving forward.”
The Republican National Committee emptied its Washington offices of all but the most essential personnel, dispatching operatives to Florida to monitor recounts and canvass the state in case a court orders a recount in all 67 counties.
Democratic operatives from across the country were summoned to Florida to assist the Democratic National Committee.
For Democrats, progress was agonizingly slow in vote-counting rooms.
• After reviewing 20,000 ballots Wednesday and adding just eight votes to Gore’s total, workers in Broward County hunkered down for another long day of vote counting. They hope to review the 588,000 ballots by Monday. A lawsuit was filed challenging the count.
• Officials in Palm Beach County on Florida’s southeast coast planned to recount ballots until midnight Thursday and begin again Friday.
• Election officials in Miami-Dade County refused Gore’s request for a full recount, drawing a legal challenge from the vice president. Gore’s allies, who persuaded Broward officials to reverse course and allow a full recount, may be making headway in Miami-Dade. The canvassing board is meeting Friday to reconsider Gore’s request.
Officials in the fourth jurisdiction, Volusia County, finished their recount in time to meet a Tuesday deadline for reporting returns to the secretary of state.