The Palm Beach County Canvassing Board suspended its hand recount early Tuesday morning, citing a legal opinion Monday by Secretary of State Katherine Harris that hand counts could only proceed in cases of machine malfunction or natural disaster.
Harris' opinion was one of the linchpins of the GOP defense in a case in Tallahassee. In that case, the Gore campaign joined Volusia and Palm Beach counties in calling for an extension of Tuesday's 5 p.m. deadline for the state to certify the election, to enable counties to complete a manual recount. The Gore camp charged Harris' opinion was an incorrect interpretation of the law.
Palm Beach County is where Democrats charge that confusion resulted in the invalidation of 30,000 ballots for president, an outsized vote for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan and numerous lawsuits by private citizens alleging an abridgement of their voting rights by a bad ballot design. A manual recount of 1 percent of county votes resulted in Gore picking up 19 votes.
Harris ruled that while Florida law clearly entitles a candidate to request a hand count, such counts could only be conducted if there was a natural disaster or a problem with the vote counting machine. In Tallahassee Monday, questioning by Judge Terry Lewis seemed to indicate he was having a hard time accepting that opinion. Lewis is set to rule at 11 a.m. EST in Tallahassee.
But the situation got muddier only a few minutes after the Palm Beach board voted 2-1 to suspend its hand count, when Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, ruled that in his legal judgment the hand counts could continue. Palm Beach is expected to go to court to determine what to do, faced with conflicting opinions from the secretary of state and attorney general. Although Harris is the state's top elections official, Butterworth is Florida's top law enforcement authority, and it was not immediately clear whose opinion would carry the day.
Trusting either side's legal objectivity is made more difficult by the fact that Harris is a Republican and a Bush campaign Florida co-chairwoman; Butterworth played the same role in the Gore campaign.
So now there will likely be another lawsuit somewhere in South Florida to determine who's opinion should stand: the Republican secretary of state or the Democratic attorney general.
Meanwhile, both camps are eagerly awaiting Lewis' ruling in Tallahassee, which may shed some more light on this increasingly murky tangle of lawsuits and contradictory directives.