Running out the clock

Democrats charge Republicans with intentionally dragging their feet over recounts.

Published November 17, 2000 8:31PM (EST)

When the Palm Beach county canvassing board restarted their manual recount of ballots Thursday evening, they were hoping to get 30 teams of Democratic and Republican observers ready to tally ballots into the night. But when Republican officials failed to show up to count ballots, Democrats cried foul.

"The Republican strategy is simple -- keep the votes from being counted," said Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway. "They've lost every attempt to do that in the courts, so it's no surprise that they're resorting to this. But I think the people of Florida and across the country are going to see right through this."

But Palm Beach County spokeswoman Denise Cote doesn't think it was an intentional attempt to thwart the recount. "It doesn't appear to have been anything deliberate," she said. "I think it was more the function of a late start, though there were all sorts of rumors."

But the Democrats are unconvinced, saying last night's GOP no-show is indicative of the continued efforts to stop the manual recount. "I think it's peculiar that all the Democrats managed to make it and most of the Republicans didn't," said one Gore staffer on the ground in Palm Beach who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They were supposed to have 30 teams up and they only had 13. It's clear that the Republican strategy is delay, delay, delay."

Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said the Bush campaign would like to stop the recounts from occurring, but denied they were simply trying to run out the clock. "These charges of delay tactics are coming from the Democrats who keep going to court to count the ballots a few more times," Tucker says. "If we can stop the hand counts we will, because we believe they produce flawed results. Their strategy is to count these votes accurately or inaccurately until they get the result they want."

Meanwhile, Democrats point to new lawsuits filed in Broward County by Republicans Thursday to once again halt the manual recount, even though the state's Supreme Court has clearly ruled that the hand counts can continue. Democrats charge that the suits are another form of delay. Since the presence of canvassing board members is mandatory during the hand counts, every hour the Broward canvassing board members are dragged before a judge, it is another hour the hand counts are put on hold. Democratic attorney Charles Lichtman dismisses the Broward suit as "much ado about nothing."

Democrats say this is the Republicans' sinister "prevent" defense, a way to hold on to Bush's narrow lead and run time off the clock. They're not just talking about Saturday's deadline for certification of the Florida vote or the Dec. 18 electoral college deadline, but also the time remaining before the public loses patience in an election that has already been dragged out 10 days past Election Day. The Democrats argue that this is a kind of back-up strategy for the Republicans in case the Supreme Court decision doesn't go their way.

"There are many more legal obstacles they can throw in the way, I'm sure," Gore spokesman Hattaway said. "But so far, every one has been shot down by the courts. They're obviously trying to drag this out so the public loses patience with the process, but it is a risky strategy on their part."

Indeed, until Friday morning, the courts had removed most of those obstacles. But that was before Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled that Secretary of State Kathleen Harris was within her right to disallow the late manual recount results from counties that are still tallying votes. The Gore campaign immediately appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court, but court watchers here speculated the seven justices may be reticent to overturn Lewis' decision. Several hours later, however, the momentum temporarily seesawed back in favor of the Democrats, with the Florida Supreme Court barring Harris from certifying the election until she receives further notice from the court. The court, whose justices were all appointed by Democrats, also accepted the Gore campaign's appeal and will hear oral arguments Monday afternoon.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Bush, and the overseas absentee ballots do not overturn Bush's 300-vote advantage, he could be named president-elect before Thanksgiving.

But Gore attorney David Boies said the court's interim ruling Thursday gives the Democrats hope for a future ruling from the high court. "I think it's very unlikely the Florida Supreme Court would have directed that these recounts go forward if all they meant to do was preserve the votes for history," he said.

In the meantime, the squabbling continues. While Republicans charge that the Democrats are simply trying to manipulate results to secure a Gore victory by any means necessary, the Democrats are accusing the Republicans of employing a three-tiered approach. On the one hand, Republicans are contriving interpretations of sometimes contradictory state laws to benefit Bush, through the power of Harris. And on the other, they are doing battle in court, armed with the ammo supplied by Harris' office. And if the court challenges fail, they are trying to foment a public outcry for quick resolution to the drawn-out process.

Central in the Democrats' charges is a report by the Miami Herald about a call from Jeb Bush's general counsel Frank Jimenez to Harris' attorneys last weekend to ask if she had issued a legal opinion about when a manual recount was warranted. Democrats charge that phone call was a not-so-subtle hint for Harris to quickly release an opinion that would not permit the recounts underway in South Florida to continune.

Harris' opinion came in less than a day, and sought to stop the manual recounts in their tracks. "Unless the discrepancy between the number of votes determined by the tabulation system and by the manual recount of four precincts is caused by incorrect election parameters or software errors, the county canvassing board is not authorized to manually recount ballots for the entire county nor perform any action specified in ... Florida statutes," the opinion states.

That opinion has become the linchpin of the Republican legal strategy. After the opinion was issued Monday, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward counties halted recounts that were already in progress. When Broward county continued their count after attorney general and Gore state chairman Bob Butterworth issued a conflicting opinion, members of the canvassing board there were served with subpoenas, accused of violating Harris' order.

The courts thus far have been reluctant to take away any of Harris' jurisdiction with a sweeping ruling. In his first decision, Lewis disagreed with Harris' assessment that hand counts were only mandated in cases of machine malfunction or natural disaster. But he did say Harris had discretion to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not vote tallies received after Tuesday's 5 p.m. deadline should be accepted.

When Harris unilaterally denied all petitions for late tallies, Democrats went back to Lewis to argue she had not exercised proper discretion. But Lewis ruled Friday that Harris' denial was within her power.

"On the limited evidence presented, it appears that the Secretary of State has exercised her reasoned judgment to determine what relevant factors and criteria should be considered, applied the facts and circumstances pertinent to the individual counties involved and made her decision. My order requires nothing more," Lewis' ruling stated.

If the Supreme Court shows a similar reluctance to intervene, and the overseas absentee ballots go as expected, this election could be over within days. But for now, that power rests with the Florida Supreme Court.

In Tallahassee Friday, Bush overseer James Baker applauded Lewis' decision, and accused the Democrats of holding up the final election results. "We now look forward to the prompt counting and reporting of the limited number of uncounted overseas absentee ballots, so that the process of achieving a final result to the election in Florida is not subject to further delays," Baker said.

The Gore team seemed prepared to allow Harris to certify the election results tomorrow, results which will probably declare Bush the winner. But Gore attorney David Boies said their team would move to have the Florida Supreme Court overturn that decision, pending the outcome of the hand counts.

Still, Gore advisor Warren Christopher acknowledged the ongoing tug of war over public opinion between the two camps, and called on Bush to wait for the high court to make their ruling before declaring himself the winner. "I hope that Governor Bush will not attach finality to tomorrow's result," Christopher said.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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2000 Elections Al Gore George W. Bush