Florida’s secretary of state prepared to certify the votes cast for George W. Bush and Al Gore in the near-deadlocked election that would determine which of them becomes 43rd president of the United States. But the struggle went on, the vote numbers under challenge even before they were declared.
The votes were due in the office of Secretary of State Katherine Harris by 5 p.m. EST, a deadline set by the state supreme court. Sixty-six counties had them ready before that hour; in the 67th, Palm Beach County, canvassers kept recounting against the clock. Harris denied Palm Beach County an extension until Monday to judge questionable ballots.
At stake are 25 electoral votes that would finally settle, for Bush or for Gore, the Nov. 7 presidential election.
At midafternoon Sunday, an unofficial count by The Associated Press showed Bush with an edge of 454 votes. Hand recounting of machine-cast ballots in heavily Democratic Broward County, the Fort Lauderdale area, and Palm Beach County, had narrowed the Bush edge.
Bush led by 930 votes before the recounts there. Absentee ballots from servicemen abroad added votes to his column.
Either way, it was an all but invisible margin out of 6 million votes cast in Florida on Nov. 7.
Anticipating a certification in which Harris, a Republican, would report Bush the leader, Gore was said to be preparing a speech to be delivered on Monday, explaining his case for the continuing challenge.
Florida’s Democratic senators, one just elected, previewed it at a news conference in Tallahassee.
“If either candidate were to be declared the victor and electoral votes awarded based on the status today, neither candidate would be legitimate,” Sen. Bob Graham said. “What is putting the presidency in jeopardy is the prospect of illegitimacy.”
Sen.-elect Bill Nelson said American’s don’t want “an election that they feel like has been rigged or has not fully been counted.
“We shouldn’t have a rush to judgment,” he said. “Rather, we should be on a path toward justice.”
Democratic congressional leaders said nothing would be settled Sunday or soon. “We’re now in a two-week-or-so period in which you have a contest on both sides of this election,” said Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, the House minority leader.
“What they’re trying to do is overturn every rock, looking for more Gore votes, extend this as long as possible,” said Gov. George Pataki of New York, one of the politicians both sides have summoned to Florida to watch the recounting and talk about it.
Pataki said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that he believes Bush won and that the Democrats are trying to recount him out of victory.
Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, the Senate’s Democratic leader, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he “truly” believes Gore won Florida, and that a full, fair recount would show it.
“I’ve talked with most of my colleagues over the last several days and there isn’t any interest in conceding anything at this point,” Daschle said.
There are court challenges in Florida on both sides, with more to come when courthouses open Monday. The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday will hear Bush’s case against a state Supreme Court recount decision. Gore lawyers said they will challenge certification of a Bush lead by Harris, a Republican who campaigned for the Texas governor.
Bush has the option of dropping his appeal to the Supreme Court should he be certified the winner. That seemed unlikely because it would concede to Gore the recounted votes that put the vice president closer to winning a post-certification challenge to the count.
“I think both sides have decided to take this election beyond the certification,” Daschle said. “Whether or not she makes any pronouncement tonight is not really relevant.”
The Sunday deadline was set by the Florida Supreme Court in the unanimous decision Bush appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Florida justices ruled that ballots cast by machine and ordered recounted by hand should be included in the Bush and Gore totals, and that the numbers should be reported to the secretary of state by 5 p.m. EST Sunday.
Harris had planned to certify the outcome as of Nov. 17, the deadline under state law. Bush’s attorneys said the state Supreme Court improperly overrode that law when it set a later deadline.
The three Palm Beach canvassing board members who unsuccessfully sought more time all are Democrats — and the Gore campaign is going to court against them on Monday to challenge their recounting method, complaining they used too stringent a standard in determining what was a valid vote.
That was one of the issues on which Gore was basing his challenge to certification.
In Broward County, where Gore made more substantial recount gains, the canvassers were less restrictive in judging a voter’s intent on punchcard ballots that did not register in voting machines because they were not properly punched, only dented.