In a dizzying turn of events, Florida’s largest county abruptly stopped recounting votes Wednesday, sending Al Gore’s lawyers scrambling back to court to keep a ballot-by-ballot fight for the White House grinding away. George W. Bush asked the Supreme Court to shut down all the recounts or risk a constitutional crisis.
“I won the vote in Florida,” Bush said – a point that could hardly be more in dispute. He accused the Democrats of monkeying with laws to reverse the election’s “legitimate result.”
Stretching into a third seesawing week, the presidential race reached new levels of unpredictability.
Bush was temporarily reeling from a Florida Supreme Court ruling late Tuesday night that said manual recounts could continue until Sunday in the state that will determine America’s 43rd president. Bush is clinging to a 930-vote lead out of 6 million cast.
Standing in front of a presidential-blue backdrop, the Texas governor accused the state Supreme Court of overreaching, and he had choice words for Democrats, too. “I believe Secretary Cheney and I won the vote in Florida. And I believe some are determined to keep counting in an effort to change the legitimate result,” he said.
“If we were not witnessing, in effect, the stealing of a presidential election it would be laughable,” said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, whose district includes part of Miami-Dade County.
Bush’s fortunes shifted with stunning speed. Within two hours of his news conference, a three-member elections board in predominantly Democratic Miami-Dade voted to scrap its recount. If the decision stands, Gore’s presidential dreams would rest with two other southeast coast counties – Palm Beach and Broward – where his advisers feared there were not enough votes to catch Bush.
“We hope the counts continue,” said Gore campaign chairman, William Daley.
Gore appealed the Miami-Dade decision, but a state appeals court refused Wednesday night to force a return to recount work. Democrats said they would appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.
Seniors advisers said the vice president’s slimming prospects depended upon the two remaining counties broadening their standards for validating votes, no sure thing, or a court forces Miami-Dade to recount – also a longshot.
Also in the day’s swirl of events:
— Bush’s lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, accusing the state’s high court of allowing “selective, arbitrary and standardless” recounts. Without a decision by the high court, “the consequences may well include the ascension of a president of questionable legitimacy, or a constitutional crisis,” the appeal said.
—Bush filed suit in a Florida court asking 13 counties with heavy military populations to count overseas ballots. Hundreds of ballots, many from military outposts, were rejected last week when Democratic lawyers urged country boards to scrutinize them. Both sides believe Bush lost more votes than Gore in the rejected ballots.
—A Palm Beach County judge said officials must consider “dimpled chad” punchcard ballots — those that show an indentation but no perforation. However, Judge Jorge Labarga said elections officials can reject the questionable ballots after trying to determine the voters’ intent. Elections board chief Charles Burton said both sides will be able to make their case Friday, but on first glance he didn’t think the ruling would change the way his board has judged ballots, a bad sign for Gore who wants the county to loosen its standards.
—Florida’s GOP-majority Legislature considered trying to select the state’s 25 electors and award the White House to the candidate of its choice, regardless of who wins the state’s popular-vote contest. “The Legislature may have to step in and select those electors,” the House GOP leader said. Bush’s team has held open this possibility as a last-ditch way of claiming the White House.
—House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Republican leaders would be prepared to contest the outcome of Florida’s recount if it does not appear to be legitimate. Under the Constitution, members of the House and Senate can object to acceptance of electoral votes, subject to a vote of the entire Congress.
Bush holds a 930-vote lead in Florida, not counting the results of manual recounts initiated by Gore in the three counties, where 1.7 million of the state’s 6 million ballots were cast.
Gore had picked up 129 votes on the recounts, forcing Bush’s lead to 801. Gore would have cut much deeper into Bush’s total if Miami-Dade’s hand counts were added — 157 for Gore before counting was suspended.
The board, one Democrat and two members who don’t list a party affiliation, cited the court’s Sunday deadline for its reversal. “It would be a minor feat and miracle for us to do it” by Sunday, said canvassing board chairman Lawrence King.
The turnabout followed a raucous morning at the vote-counting center. Well-organized Republicans protested the board’s decision Tuesday to turn its attention exclusively to an estimated 10,000 ballots that were not punched through cleanly on Election Day.
In a scene carried on national TV, security officers jostled with protesters outside the counting room. “Cheaters! Let us in!” the demonstrators yelled.
Both sides believed those 10,000 ballots would boost Gore’s totals, and possibly allow him to overtake Bush. Republicans cried foul, saying GOP precincts — and potential Bush gains — would be ignored.
After the vote to stop counting, Florida GOP chairman Al Cardenas said, “Finally, we’re getting some semblance of the rule of law here.”
Democrats blamed the protests for the board’s about-face, saying the three board members were rattled by the events and lurched to an ill-advised decision.
Bush, meanwhile, criticized the recount process and the Supreme Court justices, all seven of whom were appointed by Democrats.
“Voters who clearly punched preferences in other races on the ballot but did not do so in the presidential race should not have their votes interpreted by local officials in a process that invited human error and mischief,” he said.
“Make no mistake, the court rewrote the laws,” Bush said. “It changed the rules and did so after the election was over.”
He said the ruling invites political “mischief” in vote-counting rooms, where Republicans believed the race was slipping away until Miami-Dade reversed itself.
Bush gave his top lawyer, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, authority to file the Supreme Court brief after several meetings that culminated Wednesday afternoon. Some advisers had worried about the political implications of raising the state dispute to the nation’s highest court, but the campaign felt the Florida Supreme Court’s ruling left Bush little wiggle room.
Though Gore was dealt a setback by Miami-Dade County officials, the Bush forces were concerned the Democrats would win on appeal to a friendly judge — and the recounts would pick up speed again. Even without Miami-Dade in the mix, Bush’s vote counters said Gore could overtake them, which would make the rejected overseas ballots a critical factor.
The recounting continued in Broward County, where Gore had gained 137 votes thus far. County election officials planned to work Thanksgiving Day to meet the Sunday deadline.
In just one-fifth of Palm Beach’s precincts, Democrats believe they would gain about 300 votes on Bush if the standard was lowered. Their best estimates suggest an additional 400 votes could get picked up in Broward.
Miami-Dade was supposed to be Gore’s treasure-trove, where Democrats predicted he could pick up 500 votes and some Republicans feared the number could climb to 1,000. Without the state’s most populous county, Gore’s chances of overtaking Bush were slim, several senior advisers said.
Still outstanding were hundreds of overseas absentee ballots challenged successfully by Democrats. An unknown number of ballots from military outposts were tossed out, drawing criticism to the Gore camp from Republicans and the Clinton administration’s own defense secretary, former Republican Sen. William Cohen.
Gore running mate Joseph Lieberman appeared to back away from the controversy Sunday, saying county officials should “take another look” at the ballots. But with the race so close, Democrats were in a fighting mood again Wednesday.