- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 16, 2000

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris last night certified the official returns from all 67 Florida counties, rejecting pleas from three predominantly Democratic counties requesting more time for hand counts.

Mrs. Harris said the only remaining task is to add the absentee ballots from overseas, which are due at midnight tomorrow. Gov. George W. Bush now has a 300-vote lead.

In a ruling the Al Gore camp vowed to fight in court, Mrs. Harris rejected the arguments from the three counties that wanted her to amend the certified total with tardy results from recounts that remain incomplete.

"I've decided it is my duty under Florida law to exercise my discretion in denying these requested amendments," Mrs. Harris announced. "The reasons given in their requests are insufficient to warrant waiver of the unambiguous filing deadline imposed by the Florida legislature."

Earlier in the evening, Mr. Gore called for hand recounts to proceed in the three counties and perhaps the entire state, a process he said could take another week, and asked to immediately meet one on one with Mr. Bush, "not to negotiate but to improve the tone of our dialogue in America."

The Texas governor rejected the Gore proposal shortly after the announcement by Mrs. Harris. He agreed to meet with the vice president, but only after the election is settled.

"I was encouraged tonight that Vice President Gore called for a conclusion to this process we all agree," Mr. Bush said. "Unfortunately, what the vice president proposed is exactly what he's been proposing all along continuing with selected hand recounts that are neither fair nor accurate, or compounding the error by extending a flawed process statewide."

The Gore proposal and Bush rejection dramatically elevated the brinksmanship of the remarkable events playing out in Florida.

"I propose this evening a way to settle this matter with finality and justice in a period of days, not weeks," Mr. Gore said as his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, stood at his side.

"First, we should complete hand counts already begun in Palm Beach County, Dade County and Broward County to determine the true intentions of the voters," he said. "The results of this recount would, of course, be added to the present certified vote total and the overseas absentee vote total.

"If this happens, I will abide by the result, I will take no legal action to challenge the result, and I will not support any legal action to challenge the result," he said.

The vice president's offer to drop his suits demanding hand counts if the governor agrees to the recounts, was made as public opinion polls showed Americans overwhelmingly think Mr. Bush won the election and with the final certification of the Florida vote expected to give the Texas governor the state victory as early as midnight tomorrow. Mr. Gore's comments were also an attempt to reverse Mr. Bush's momentum with a bold pre-emptive strike as public frustration with the protracted legal battle grows.

Mr. Gore said if Mr. Bush rejected the recount plan for the three counties, the vice president would offer the same deal for all 67 counties in Florida. That would mean individually examining nearly 6 million ballots, a process the vice president insisted can be completed within seven days "of the time it starts."

"Second, I propose that Governor Bush and I meet personally, one on one, as soon as possible, before the vote count is finished, not to negotiate, but to improve the tone of our dialogue in America," Mr. Gore said. "We should both call on all our supporters to prepare themselves to close ranks as Americans and unite the country behind the winner as soon as this process is completed."

Such a meeting would be the first time the two presidential candidates have communicated directly since Election Night, when the vice president congratulated Mr. Bush on his apparent victory, only to retract the concession an hour later. During that second conversation, Mr. Gore is said to have remarked to the incredulous Texas governor: "You don't have to get snippy about it."

Last night, the vice president also called for a second meeting with Mr. Bush, this one after the results of the hand counts are known.

"We should both come together for another meeting, to reaffirm our national unity," he said. "If I turn out to be successful, I'll be ready to travel to Governor Bush's home. If I am not, I'll be ready to meet him wherever he wishes."

Mr. Bush responded by insisting that "the outcome of this election will not be the result of deals or efforts to mold public opinion. The outcome of this election will be determined by the votes and by the law."

He also emphasized that "this process must have a point of conclusion. America and the world must know who will be the next president."

The Texas governor added: "Everyone in Florida has had his or her vote counted once. Those votes have been recounted. In some counties, they have been counted a third and even fourth time."

He also sought to counter argument from the Gore camp that hand counts are more accurate than machine counts.

"As Americans have watched on television, they have seen for themselves that manual counting, with individuals making subjective decisions about voter intent, introduces human error and politics into the vote-counting process," he said.

"This means every vote in Florida would be evaluated differently by different individuals using different judgment, and perhaps different local standards, or perhaps no standards at all. This would be neither fair nor accurate. It would be arbitrary and chaotic.

"Each time these voting cards are handled, the potential for errors multiplies. Additional manual counts of votes that have been counted and recounted will make the process less accurate, not more so."

Mr. Bush emphasized tomorrow night's deadline for absentee ballots as the final cutoff in a long and anguished process.

"I don't know who these ballots will support, and neither does Vice President Gore. The votes of Florida have been counted. They have been recounted. And tonight they have been certified, and we do not know yet who has won.

"The way to conclude this election in a fair and accurate and final way is for the state of Florida to count the remaining overseas ballots, add them to the certified vote, and announce the results, as required by Florida law," he concluded.

The Gore speech and Mr. Bush's plan to respond capped a day in which both men took their fight for the presidency to the Florida Supreme Court. The court rejected a request by the GOP for an immediate halt to hand recounts, although it left the door open for arguments on the merits of such tallies.

The vice president called on both sides "to refrain from using inflammatory language" just a day after his lawyer, Alan Dershowitz, called Florida's secretary of state "a crook" and Gore spokesman Chris Lehane likened her to a Soviet "commissar."

The court's seven justices, six of whom were appointed by Democratic governors, also rejected a call by Republican Katherine Harris, the secretary of state and Florida's top election official, for the explosion of litigation to be consolidated in Leon County Circuit Court, which is a block away from the Florida Supreme Court here in the state's capital.

While the Gore team argued in favor of hand recounts that have been proposed in several Democratic counties, Mrs. Harris countered that there are no statewide standards to compel counties to recount in the same way. The Bush camp has gone even further by calling the counts unconstitutional.

To hedge their bet, Republicans are making the same argument in a federal appeals court in Atlanta, which agreed yesterday to hear two cases that were thrown out earlier by federal judges in Florida. One case originated with the Bush camp in Miami and the second with other Republicans in Orlando.

In an unusual move, both cases will be heard by all 12 members of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, seven of whom were appointed by Republican presidents and five of whom were appointed by Democrats. The justices told the Orlando Republicans to submit legal arguments by 7 a.m. today.

Also yesterday, Republicans accused a Democratic member of the Palm Beach Canvassing Board of tampering with ballots and demanded her ouster. Carol Roberts denied the charges and refused to step down.

Conversely, Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle called for Mrs. Harris to recuse herself from the presidential dispute because she co-chaired the Bush campaign in Florida. Mrs. Harris refused to relinquish her role as the state's top election official.

Mr. Daschle did not call on the state's attorney general, a Democrat working to further Mr. Gore's goals in the state, to recuse himself.

Meanwhile, three Democratic counties submitted written arguments for Mrs. Harris to belatedly accept their hand recounts, which were due by Florida law at 5 p.m. Tuesday. Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward counties submitted the arguments before yesterday's 2 p.m. deadline.

A fourth county, Collier, also asked Mrs. Harris to accept two dozen ballots that were belatedly discovered by poll workers.

Mrs. Harris rejected the written arguments, saying the "reasons given in their requests are insufficient to warrant waiver of the unambiguous filing deadline imposed by the Florida legislature." Having rejected the arguments for hand counts, she could give final certification to the statewide vote on Saturday, effectively awarding Mr. Bush Florida and the presidency.

Thus, it has become increasingly important for Democrats to complete as many of their hand counts as possible by midnight tomorrow, when newly discovered votes for Mr. Gore might sway public opinion more than if they are revealed days or even weeks from now.

That's why Mr. Gore's emissary here, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, urged the Democratic counties on Tuesday to complete their hand counts as soon as possible. Despite this urging, Democratic counties have vacillated on whether and when to proceed.

In Broward County yesterday, election officials reversed themselves by voting to conduct a countywide hand recount. On Monday night, those officials had voted against such a count after completing a sample hand count, which covered 1 percent of the county's precincts.

In Palm Beach County, the canvassing board had voted Tuesday to resume its hand count at 7 a.m. yesterday morning. But the count did not immediately resume because of ongoing confusion over whether it would be legal.

Shortly before noon, Circuit Court Judge Jorge Labarga overturned the board's earlier decision not to count ballots containing "pregnant chad."

The term refers to tiny squares of paper that bulged, but did not detach, from ballots when poked by voters. The judge's ruling means elections officials can count ballots from which not a single corner of the cardboard squares detached.

"The Palm Beach County Canvassing Commission has the discretion to utilize whatever methodology it deems proper to determine the true intention of the voter, and it should not be restricted in that task," Judge Labarga said. "To that end, the present policy of a per se exclusion of any ballot that does not have a partially punched or hanging chad is not in compliance with the intention of the law.

"Accordingly, the canvassing board has the discretion to consider those ballots and accept them or reject them," he concluded.

But in the end, the board opted not to resume the hand count until hearing from the Florida Supreme Court.

Finally, Miami-Dade officials have decided against a countywide hand tally after a sample count of 1 percent of the precincts netted only a handful of votes for Mr. Gore. Gore lawyers are suing to force the county to complete the hand count.

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