All eyes on Florida Supreme Court

Crucial Monday hearing looms as Bush lead stands at 927 with 66 of 67 counties counted.

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All eyes on Florida Supreme Court

As an extraordinary, roller-coaster day of dramatic legal rulings came to a close, the fate of the presidential election rested in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court, which will hear arguments on Monday on whether or not handcounted ballots in three Florida counties will be allowed.

At 9:00 a.m. EST on Saturday, according to unofficial Associated Press figures, George W. Bush’s lead stood at 927 votes, with 66 of 67 counties having completed their absentee ballot count. Before the absentee ballot count began, Bush’s lead was 300 votes.

The gain of 627 votes was a major disappointment to Bush supporters, who had expected to pick up considerably more from absentee voters. Close to 1,100 votes were disqualified, mostly because they were not postmarked before the midnight EST Nov. 7 deadline.

Meanwhile, hand recounts were set to continue throughout the weekend in Democratic-leaning Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, with the possibility that the hand recount might put Gore into the lead in the Florida vote for the first time.

The day’s dramatic events began with a significant legal victory for Bush, when Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis upheld Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris’ right to reject hand-counted ballot totals submitted after Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline. “It appears that the Secretary has exercised her reasoned judgment,” read a portion of the opinion issued by Lewis on Friday morning.

The ruling cleared the way for Harris, who had ruled that late hand-counted results were inadmissible, to be able to certify the Florida vote on Saturday, after absentee ballots were counted, and presumably declare Bush the winner. Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a brief statement in reaction to Lewis’ decision, declaring that Bush and running mate Dick Cheney are “understandably pleased.” “The rule of law has prevailed,” Baker said.

Within hours, lawyers representing Gore petitioned the state Supreme Court to overturn Lewis’ ruling and allow the late recounted ballots. Former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, an advisor to the vice president, cautioned against a “rush to judgment. We must not let expediency overcome our primary precepts and principles,” he said.

Republican jubilation, however, was short-lived. On Friday afternoon, the Florida Supreme Court enjoined Harris from certifying the vote until further notice, in effect putting the election on hold. Once the election had been certified, with Bush the victor, the legal and public-relations hurdles facing Gore would have been much higher. However, the court did not rule on whether the late ballots were admissible, deferring that decision to Monday.

Vice President Al Gore, who had been preparing to issue a statement after the earlier ruling, issued a brief statement. “I want to be clear: Neither Governor Bush, nor the Florida secretary of state, nor I, will be the arbiter of this election,” he said.

Bush advisor Baker said that the Florida Supreme Court decision, though disappointing, left the status quo unchanged. Like Gore, Baker read his statement and took no questions.

Following the court’s ruling, the Miami-Dade canvassing board voted 2-1 to go ahead with a full manual recount of their county’s 600,000-plus votes. The county had earlier decided not to recount its votes because it deemed the margin of changed ballots — 19 ballots in an earlier one-percent sample — to be insufficient.

Bush was dealt a second legal setback later in the day, when the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Atlanta, refused to stop the hand recounts in several Florida counties. The court decided that the elections were a state matter in which they should not interfere. Bush had brought suit in the federal court as part of a two-track legal strategy.

The day’s events placed the crucial decision in the hands of the state’s seven-member Supreme Court, six of whom were appointed by Democrats. If the court upholds the lower court’s decision, the manual recounts currently ongoing in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties will be moot, and barring a successful appeal to a federal court, Bush will win Florida’s electoral votes and the presidency. If it finds against Lewis, barring appeals, the outcome of the election may hang on the recounts. Figures from those recounts were expected to be released throughout the weekend, creating the extraordinary spectacle of an election whose outcome might well be determined in plain sight, one vote at a time.

Observers held out the possibility that if the court rules against Bush, it might in the interests of fairness mandate a state-wide recount — an option that Gore had offered to Bush in his televised address on Wednesday. Bush refused the offer.

Double blow for Bush
In the second legal setback of the day for Gov. George W. Bush, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stop the hand recounts in several Florida counties. The court decided that the elections were a state matter in which they should not interfere.

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Earlier in the day, the Florida Supreme Court barred Secretary of State Katherine Harris from certifying the election “until further notice,” and announced that it will hear an urgent appeal from Vice President Al Gore Monday that could decide the presidential race. Harris had planned on certifying the result on Saturday. After the court’s decision, the Miami-Dade canvassing board voted 2-1 to go ahead with a full manual recount of their county’s 600,000-plus votes.

The vice president had a subdued reaction to this court victory. “I want to be clear: Neither Governor Bush, nor the Florida secretary of state, nor I, will be the arbiter of this election,” he said in a brief statement shortly after the court’s opinion. He took no questions.

The Texas governor has yet to speak for himself, but his close advisor, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker claimed that the Florida Supreme Court decision, though disappointing, changed little. Like Gore, Baker read his statement and took no questions.

The shift in momentum started when lawyers representing Gore petitioned the state Supreme Court to overturn a Friday morning ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis. That decision would have allowed Harris to reject late recounted ballots. Warren Christopher, a close advisor to the vice president, cautioned against a “rush to judgment. “We must not let expediency overcome our primary precepts and principles,” he said.

Election officials have already begun counting the overseas ballots, and the Associated Press reports that Bush’s unofficial lead over Gore has grown to 927 votes with 66 of 67 counties reporting.

The Democratic team was dealt a serious setback when Lewis upheld Harris’ right to reject hand-counted ballot totals submitted after Tuesday’s 5 p.m. deadline. “It appears that the Secretary has exercised her reasoned judgment,” read a portion of the opinion issued by Lewis on Friday morning. If that decision withstands the latest Gore appeal, the manual recounts currently ongoing in Broward and Palm Beach counties will be moot, and the election will virtually be over once the overseas absentee ballots are tallied.

Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a brief statement in reaction to Lewis’ decision, declaring that Bush and running mate Dick Cheney are “understandably pleased.” “The rule of law has prevailed,” Baker said.

Elsewhere in court

  • A Palm Beach County judge will issue a written opinion about the legality of the “butterfly ballot” next week.
  • A court refused a request to stop the Broward County canvassing board from conducting its recount.

    Counting counties

  • Broward: Gore has picked up 34 votes with 120 of 609 precincts reviewed.
  • Palm Beach: The recount continues, but officials are reluctant to publicize the results.
  • Miami-Dade: The county canvassing board has agreed to go ahead with a full recount.

    By the numbers

  • 600,000 — Number of dollars the Republican Party spent on encouraging overseas absentee voting (Reuters)
  • 80,000 — Number of dollars the Democratic Party spent on similar efforts (Reuters)
  • 2,575 — Number of absentee ballots received by Florida that remained uncounted Friday morning (USA Today)
  • 6,256 — Number of absentee ballots issued but not received by Friday morning (USA Today)
  • 56 — Percentage of the absentee votes Gore must win to overcome Bush’s current lead (USA Today)

    Poll results
    According to an ABC News poll, 57 percent of Americans believe that a quick resolution to the election is more important than both sides having their day in court.

    Flashback
    The last ABC poll before Election Day showed Bush beating Gore 48 to 45 percent in the popular vote.

    Sound off
    E-mail Trail Mix with your comments, suggestions and tips at alicia@salon.com.

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  • Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.
    Alicia Montgomery is an associate editor in Salon's Washington bureau.

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