A sudden halt

As counters in Tallahassee start to gain momentum, the Supreme Court tells them to go home.

By Jake Tapper

Published December 9, 2000 11:43PM (EST)

By the time I land in the Florida capital Saturday morning, the manual recount of Miami-Dade County's 9,000 or so undervotes has commenced, as ordered Friday by the Florida Supreme Court and organized Friday night by Circuit Judge Terry Lewis.

Throughout the Sunshine State, other county canvassing boards have kicked in with their plans to count the 43,000-plus undervotes, as ordered by the court. Vice President Al Gore is alive again.

By 3 p.m. EST, the U.S. Supreme Court has pulled the plug on all of it, granting by a 5-4 vote Texas Gov. George W. Bush's legal team's request for an immediate halt to the recount. Gore, once again, seems like a dead man.

But even former Secretary of State James Baker, Bush's man in Tallahassee, makes it clear that Gore still has a pulse.

Is it over? Baker is asked.

"Of course not, they haven't ruled yet," Baker says. "This is a stay."

So the hand recount has been stopped -- but for how long? Justice Antonin Scalia issued an unusual concurrent argument basically saying Bush should remain hopeful. "It suffices to say that the issuance of the stay suggests that a majority of the court, while not deciding the issues presented, believe that the petitioner has a substantial probability of success," Scalia wrote.

Oral arguments on whether the recount should commence -- and whether there is even a federal issue at stake here -- will commence at 11 a.m. EST Monday.

Even though Gore and his team had hoped that this hand recount would prove their fervent belief that Gore actually won Florida, it's quite possible that a tabulation of the undervotes would have ratcheted up the figures for Bush, increasing his lead from the 158-vote landslide he now enjoys, thanks to the Florida Supreme Court.

While the Gore team brags that after some partial and some completed county undervote recounts, Gore enjoys a net gain of 58 votes, a Bush campaign observer reports that after about 40 percent of the undervotes are counted in Miami-Dade, Bush nets 42 more than Gore (92 to 50).

Every single number seems to be in dispute. Friday's Florida Supreme Court ruling took Bush's certified 537-vote lead and subtracted 215 votes from Palm Beach County's late returns and 168 votes from a partial hand recount of Miami-Dade's undervotes. Voilà -- Bush was only up by 158.

But the Bush team is forcefully pushing another number -- 586. The Bush side argues that when the U.S. Supreme Court "vacated" the Florida court's decision to extend the certification deadline a week ago, the margin of victory reverted back to the 930-vote total. Additionally, Bush's people contend, the official Palm Beach number is 168, not 215.

Who knows? All of these numbers are of ephemeral importance anyway, since the statewide total of undervotes is more than 43,000. And more importantly, on Monday the U.S. Supreme Court could very well vacate Tallahassee of its legions of lawyers, pols and reporters with one swift stroke of its pen.

Other numbers are declared potentially illegal. Bush buddy (and possible Bush administration attorney general) Gov. Marc Racicot of Montana slams the Gore team for violating Lewis' court order by announcing their supposed 58-vote net gain, which Gore attorneys David Boies and Ron Klain both did.

"No partial counts shall be reported formally or informally," read Lewis' court order, as quoted by Gov. George Pataki, R-N.Y., at the Tallahassee press conference.

Pataki countered, meanwhile, by saying he was "very pleased" with the numbers he saw from the Miami-Dade recount, "but I'm not going to share them."

Pataki and Racicot are correct, of course; the Gore recount team had no business sharing partial recount numbers with the press in direct violation of Lewis' court order. Of course, their outrage would probably seem a bit more genuine if there hadn't been a Bush campaign recount observer who was sharing Miami-Dade numbers with any and every carbon-based life form standing outside the Leon County Library.

As with every other twist and turn in this crazy, wild, knocked-out, cuckoo story, few of us had any inkling this was where the day was going.

Saturday morning, there are three Democrats on my plane into town -- two from Boston, one from D.C. -- all of whom have been asked by the Gore recount team to fly down to the Panhandle and help supervise the statewide hand recount of the undervotes. After my flight from Atlanta lands, about a dozen Democrats converge near the Avis rental car counter, where they are given car keys and instructions on where to drive. As with teams of Republicans, they're being farmed out to supervise the recount efforts across the state, from Pensacola to Naples.

"The Library is CLOSED TODAY please see the branches," reads the sign on the front door of the LeRoy Collins Leon County Public Library, at 200 W. Park Ave. Inside, instead of a blood drive or an exhibit of elementary school art, four tables are set up and the recount of the 9,000 or so remaining undervotes from Miami-Dade County has been underway since 9:55 a.m.

Each table hosts two judges, two deputy clerks and two observers -- a Democrat and a Republican. Miami-Dade County elections supervisor David Leahy is in the house, as is county attorney Murray Greenberg.

A typical counting period, at Table 3, begins with a deputy clerk walking to a side room and picking up a white envelope full of ballots, then taking it back to the table.

"Precinct 267, 18 votes," the deputy clerk says, reading what's written on the outside of the envelope.

The other clerk opens the envelope and counts the ballots, verifying the number.

Judge Charles Francis takes a ballot. "No vote," he says.

Judge Janet Ferris assesses the ballot as well. "No vote," she agrees.

There are five shoe boxes on each table. This ballot is placed in the box set aside for the "no" votes, as others are for Gore, Bush, "other" and ballots on which the judges disagree. Lewis said Friday night that he would assess these disputed ballots himself. If any of the observers have any objections, they are told to record them and make their protests known at a later time. The observers seem to be scribbling furiously.

Subdued and serious, the four tables are working briskly, assessing about 1,000 ballots an hour. At this rate, they could conceivably be done before the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the Bush team's request for an injunction to stop the count. Each table takes a brief lunch break -- sandwiches and chips.

"Precinct 267, 18 votes," ends up being 18 no votes. Table 3 soon goes through the 25 votes of precinct 372. Inspection of this envelope results in one additional Bush vote, 24 no votes.

One out of every 10 or so ballots bears closer inspection. Most seem to be no-brainers.

At 11:58 a.m., some chitchat from deputy clerks and deputy sheriffs in the back room seems to annoy Ferris and Francis. The judges glare; immediate silence follows.

At Table 4, the result is a bit different. Judge Tim Harley and Chief Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds hit a run of Gore votes. Reynolds occasionally uses a magnifying glass. There seem to be no moments of the judges holding the ballot up to the light, perhaps divining the chads.

At Table 2, Judge Kathleen Decker turns to Francis. "Ready, set, go!" she jokes.

At 12:10 p.m., Pataki walks in. He mingles in the back of the room.

Outside the library, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., speaks to TV cameras about the importance of "counting every vote" while Bush protesters try to shout her down. "Go back to the left coast!" one yells.

"Al Gore! Three-time loser! Al Gore! Three-time loser!" the small crowd bellows. "Dis-bar the Supreme Court!" chants Bill Engledow, 30, from Warren Robins, Ga., who has a megaphone.

"I'm just a voter who's outraged," Engledow says to me when I ask him what's up.

The Gore supporters are less exuberant and fewer in number. Every time the small Gore huddle tries to get a chant going it gets smashed by the megaphone and aggression of the 50 or so Bush supporters.

Back inside, deputy clerk Miriam Jugger approaches Harley and Reynolds at Table 4. "We are one-third of the way through," she says. "Please expect to be here until 9 or 10."

At Table 3, deputy clerk Denise Bertelsen motions toward the TV camera. "I should turn my head so my family could see me," she says.

Judges are sharing mints, apparently mindful of the close quarters. When Table 2 returns from lunch Judge John Crusoe asks, "Anyone have onions?"

At around 2:45 p.m., word of the U.S. Supreme Court decision spreads inside and outside the Leon County Library like those glow-in-the-dark germs in the movie "Outbreak."

"SOOOOOOOOORRREE loser," the Bush protesters chant. "SOOOOOOOOORRREE loser."

The Gore forces weakly cry back: "This is America! Every vote counts!"

At 2:59, Leon County court administrator Terre Cass pokes her head out to tell us what's up. "All I can tell you is that we are in recess right now until we can figure out what has happened," she says. "The teams finished up the precincts they were currently working on." The judges have yet to receive official word from the U.S. Supreme Court, she says.

Inside, Reynolds is given the official word from Lewis. He tells everyone to stop counting. Maybe 15 minutes later, Cass steps to the podium.

Reporters scramble around her.

"OK, are we ready?" she asks.

We nod.

"We've just received a call from Judge Terry Lewis," Cass says. The U.S. Supreme Court has ordered a stay on the Florida Supreme Court's Friday decision.

The Bush protesters erupt with boisterous cheers. "It's time for Gore to go! It's time for Gore to go!" they cry, facing off against the Gore protesters.

"This is good," Tom Rush, a Leon County Republican official, says softly to a woman next to him, motioning at the excited, somewhat angry, Bush mass. "It's my job to harness this and keep it going."

Judges start leaving the building, escorted by sheriff's deputies. Reporters and cameramen chase them. One camera nearly falls, catching on a POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS yellow tape that has separated Gore protesters from Bush protesters. Someone else pulls up the tape to make his way through and it catches a young man, John Campbell of Lakeland, Fla., under the neck, nearly strangling him for a second.

Deputy clerks spill out into the parking lot, holding shoe boxes. Inside are supplies, we're told, not ballots -- the ballots are being returned under armed guard to the Leon County Circuit Courthouse.

"We tried," says a deputy clerk as she gets into her friend's powder blue GMC Sonoma. "We had a good system going. I'm a little disappointed. We came to do a job and we didn't really get to do it."

To their credit, Gore recount committee members don't slam the U.S. Supreme Court the way the Bush team members did the Florida Supreme Court. They don't call the U.S. Supreme Court justices partisan hacks, or incessantly point out that Saturday's decision was 5-4. They don't question anyone's ethics or motives, their patriotism or their intelligence.

Then again, they still hope the court will rule in their favor. The ones I speak with say that they're disappointed; they think it now all hinges on Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Outside the library, protesters and reporters and sheriff's deputies mill about. What do we do now? Where do we go? What's going to happen next?

County clerk David Lang comes out of the building.

"We're all in a state of suspended animation, just like you are," Lang says to a mass of reporters. "When the British surrendered at Old Yorktown, they marched to the tune of 'The World Turned Upside Down.' I'm going to go try to find a copy of that."

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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