- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2000

NEWS ANALYSIS

The presidential election war being fought out in Florida is moving toward an endgame scenario that will produce a final, official vote count Saturday, barring some new judicial ruling to stop that from happening.

The big question, once the winner is declared, is whether the state's certified vote count by Secretary of State Katherine Harris can withstand the legal and political firestorm it will likely ignite.

Court rulings so far largely have reinforced Mrs. Harris' legal authority to move ahead with her announced plans to incorporate the late-arriving overseas absentee ballots into a final, statewide vote count and officially certify the winner of the state's 25 electoral votes on Saturday.

"The U.S. District Court ruling concluded that this issue should be left in the hands of the state officials and state courts. And the Circuit Court judge upheld that ruling by saying that Harris has the authority to enforce her deadline and to consider any other votes at her discretion," said Jan Baran, an elections law lawyer who is closely following the Florida dispute.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the two counties seeking to continue their hand count of all ballots may continue to do so. But the decision of the seven-member court did not overrule the Circuit Court's view that Mrs. Harris has the statutory authority to move forward to a final tally, using her discretion to accept or reject late recounts.

The Circuit Court ruling handed down yesterday said she could not act in an arbitrary manner in accepting or rejecting any late or supplemental recounts, but should use careful discretion in deciding whether they were acceptable or not.

"Unless the courts intervene in some way, three things will happen. One, the hand counts will proceed to a conclusion, and secondly, the secretary of state will have to decide whether to accept new results from these counties," Mr. Baran said.

Notably, the counties at her request have submitted letters explaining why they need to proceed with their recounts and why they missed yesterday's deadline to send in the final count of their ballots.

"If the state Supreme Court supports Harris' authority [to render a final tally of the counties' ballots], that will be pretty much conclusive and the last word," Mr. Baran said.

"The law is very clear on her authority, and it is very unlikely that it will be overruled," he said.

Mrs. Harris last night acted on that discretion by certifying the results from all 67 Florida counties and rejecting requests from several counties to waive the deadlines to conduct further recounts.

The recounts in the two heavily Democratic counties that the Gore campaign is focusing its hopes of victory on Palm Beach and Broward are continuing.

Should they yield enough votes to overcome Mr. Bush's official 300-vote lead and the boost he expects from overseas absentee ballots when they are certified at the weekend, then the only issue is whether last night's rejection was an abuse of Mrs. Harris' discretion.

"The next battleground will be how she exercises her discretion," Mr. Baran said.

"Ultimately, everyone will be arguing whether she abused her discretion in … rejecting the new results," he said.

"By Friday, she has the opportunity to validate the overseas absentee voting results," he said.

That final vote count would lead to the certification by the three-member election canvassing commission of the state electors, who will cast Florida's 25 electoral votes when the Electoral College meets on Dec. 18.

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