By Ann LoLordo and Stephanie Desmon
November 15, 2000
Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis' ruling, perhaps the most significant of the day, was claimed as a victory by Republicans and Democrats in their quest to win the state's crucial 25 electoral votes, the key to the White House.
Sitting in Tallahassee, Lewis ruled that Florida's 67 counties were required to turn in their election results by yesterday's 5 p.m. deadline, a contention of the Bush camp. He also ruled that Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, the state elections chief who opposed continued recounts, has the authority to accept or reject late returns "but may not do so arbitrarily."
The rulings mean that the preliminary vote tally, announced in early evening by Harris -- 2,910,492 for Bush, 2,910,192 for Gore - could change in the coming week. They also set the stage for the legal wrangling to continue and possibly reach the Florida Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
From Miami to Tallahassee, the state capital, yesterday's developments in the disputed presidential election occurred in the courts. The focus was on whether to halt or continue the manual recounts of votes in Palm Beach, Volusia, Miami-Dade and Broward counties in view of the 5 p.m. deadline to turn in vote totals. Harris had imposed that deadline, citing state election law.
Last night, Harris ordered officials of those four counties to provide her, in writing, with "the facts and circumstances that would cause these counties to believe a change should be made" in the current vote totals. Those statements are due in her office at 2 p.m. today.
Unless "these facts and circumstances ... justify an amendment" to the state totals announced last night, Harris said, the state Canvassing Board will certify the results, which give Bush a 300-vote lead over Gore. The absentee ballots will be counted and certified, then the winner announced, Harris said.
The state's Republican elections chief and local county boards were engaged in a tug of war over whether to keep counting. The Florida attorney general, a Democrat, weighed in, then judges in three counties.
The Republicans' high-powered legal team filed a notice that will appeal Monday's decision by a federal judge in Miami, who ruled that the battle should stay in the state courts.
The Democrats' legal experts waited anxiously to see whether Lewis would order an extension of the state deadline for turning in vote totals, which would have allowed manual counts to go on.
Shortly before 1 p.m., they got the word.
In a reminder to both sides, the judge noted that an unsuccessful candidate could challenge the state's certified vote count if Harris rejected ballots that were "sufficient to change or place in doubt the result of the election." That reminder seemed to underscore the Gore camp's contention that a manual vote would make the difference in the Florida race.
Meanwhile, judges in Palm Beach and Broward counties gave their election boards approval to continue manually counting election returns, rejecting an earlier claim by Harris that to do so was illegal. Palm Beach County, the scene of an extensive recount because of voter complaints, said it would resume its hand count today.
Volusia County concluded its count with gains for Gore. Miami-Dade began a sample hand count yesterday in three overwhelmingly Democratic precincts to determine whether there were irregularities. Broward County decided Monday against a manual recount, but officials there were awaiting legal opinions yesterday before deciding to resume a full hand count.
The recounts could tip the balance in favor of Gore, both sides believe.
Jenny Backus, a Democratic spokeswoman, said Lewis' decision gives the local election boards time to "finish those [hand] counts in a fair, accurate and timely manner."
"These hand counts would be done by now or in the near future if there weren't so many legal hurdles put [forth] by the secretary of state's office and the Republican legal team," Backus said. "The bottom line is, we think Americans want a fair and accurate count."
Mindy Tucker, the Bush campaign spokeswoman, scorned the Democrats' assertion that Lewis' ruling was favorable to their cause. "It appears to me that victory to them means any way to prolong this process and keep counting ballots until they get the result they want," she told the Associated Press.
The Bush campaign has fought manual recounts at every turn, most recently Monday in U.S. District Court in Miami. Republican lawyers argued that hand counts should be stopped because they are unreliable and subject to partisan elections officials. But Judge Donald M. Middlebrooks ruled that a challenge at this stage belonged in state courts.
The decision by Bush lawyers to proceed with a challenge of the manual recounts by filing a notice of appeal with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta puts the Florida dispute back on a possible track toward the Supreme Court.
Until that notice was filed late in the afternoon, the legal wrangling was confined to state courts, and on state law issues alone, something the Supreme Court would have no authority to review.
Various federal constitutional issues have arisen as the legal feud has continued, but those are confined to the federal case now on its way to Atlanta, where the appeals court could take its first action on the case today.
The frenzy of yesterday's legal and political wrangling was most evident in Palm Beach County, where the Canvassing Board arrived at 7 a.m. to oversee the manual count of more than 460,000 votes. But it was stopped before it started.
A letter from L. Clayton Roberts, Harris' election director and a Republican, warned that a manual recount was illegal. The board also had an opinion from the state's top lawyer, Attorney General Robert Butterworth, a Democrat who led Gore's Florida campaign. The opinion disputed Roberts' claim.
The board, which convened on a makeshift stage in a parking lot, decided to ask the Florida Supreme Court for direction.
The next turn of events came at 3:05 p.m., when Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga gave the board the go-ahead to begin the hand count. He also lifted an injunction that had kept the board from certifying its election results.
Labarga's ruling was hard to come by. Five other judges refused to hear the case, including one who had been overheard making disparaging remarks about Democrats.
A judge having ruled, the Palm Beach elections board decided to proceed. "I don't think it would be wise to sit ... and wait for direction from that court," said Judge Charles Burton, the board's chairman, referring to the state's highest court. "If we start and the Supreme Court tells us to stop, that's what we'll have to do."
Board attorney Denise Dytrych cautioned members to wait and not to unlock the ballot boxes for what would be their fourth vote count.
"What happens [if we don't wait]?" asked Commissioner Carol Roberts. "Do we go to jail, because I'm willing to go to jail."
Cheers erupted from a crowd of sign-waving people who had gathered in the parking lot to watch the events unfold. But Burton scolded, "This is not a political rally."
Forty minutes before the 5 p.m. state deadline, the county certified its election results, which were overwhelmingly for Gore. The board is set to begin the tedious hand recount at 7 a.m. today. The recount, which officials said could take a week to complete, is being conducted at the county's Emergency Operations Center, a hurricane shelter built to withstand 150 mph winds. But it's never taken a direct hit like this.
Lyle Denniston of The Sun's Washington Bureau contributed to this article.