- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. The Florida Supreme Court yesterday refused to throw out 25,000 absentee ballots from Seminole and Martin counties, snuffing two of Al Gore's final legal options for winning the presidency.

Six of the court's seven justices voted to affirm the rulings of lower courts that had refused to disqualify the ballots. A seventh justice, Leander Shaw, recused himself for unknown reasons.

The rulings were setbacks for Mr. Gore, who had publicly endorsed the lawsuits despite his postelection mantra to "count every vote." His willingness to embrace the Seminole and Martin cases was widely viewed as a sign of growing desperation as other legal options dried up.

The Seminole case was brought by Gore supporter Harry Jacobs, who demanded that 20,000 absentee ballots be thrown out because a fraction of them had been cast by voters who received help from Republican officials in filling out the ballot applications.

Since there is no way to retroactively match ballots with their respective applications, Mr. Jacobs wanted them all thrown out.

But yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the ruling of Leon County Circuit Judge Nikki Clark, who said questions about the applications were not enough to justify invalidation of the actual ballots.

"We find competent, substantial evidence to support the trial court's conclusion that the evidence in this case does not support a finding of fraud, gross negligence or intentional wrongdoing in connection with any absentee ballots," the justices wrote in yesterday's ruling.

"While there may be questions regarding the application forms in this case, there is no question that the ballots themselves conformed to the requirements of … Florida statutes," they added.

The justices used the same reasoning in their affirmation of the Martin County ruling, which involved about 5,000 absentee ballots. That lawsuit had been rejected by Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis.

"We were faced with almost identical circumstances regarding absentee ballot requests," the justices wrote in the Martin decision. "While the circuit court found similar irregularities surrounding absentee ballot requests in that case, it also found no evidence of fraud or misconduct."

In both counties, absentee voters had favored Mr. Bush heavily. If the ballots had been thrown out, Mr. Gore easily would have overcome the Texas governor's certified 537-vote lead.

Mr. Jacobs' attorney, Gerald Richman, said he was disappointed by yesterday's ruling. He added that he had not yet decided whether to appeal it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"We are gratified by this decision to affirm the reasonable and common sense ruling of the lower court judges," said Bush campaign lawyer Barry Richard. "We have believed all along that the law was crystal clear these legally cast votes should be counted."

Although Mr. Gore was not a formal party to the Seminole and Martin lawsuits, his spokesman tried to find a silver lining in their failure yesterday.

Gore spokesman Doug Hattaway said the failure "snatched away" from Republicans a political "fig leaf" that provided them with cover in their bid to have the state's 25 electors appointed directly by the Florida Legislature.

But the Legislature, which is dominated by Republicans, is pressing forward with an "insurance policy" to restore the electors to Mr. Bush in the event that the vice president wins another case, which still was pending last night before the U.S. Supreme Court.

If Mr. Gore loses that case as well, many prominent Democrats believe he should concede to Mr. Bush and end the postelection debacle, now entering its sixth week. But others want him to continue the fight by trying to convince a few Bush electors to defect.

The Texas governor currently has 271 electoral votes, or one more than he needs to win the presidency. But prominent Democrats like former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo have endorsed a plan to "flip" three of the Bush electors over to Mr. Gore, who currently has 267 electors.

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