TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Al Gore, whose post-election mantra has been to “count every vote,” yesterday for the first time endorsed Democratic lawsuits seeking to throw out more than 20,000 absentee ballots in Seminole and Martin counties.
The dramatic shift in strategy came just hours after the Florida Supreme Court announced it might not accept the vice president’s appeal of a lower court’s sweeping rejection of his lawsuit contesting the election.
Even if the case is accepted, legal professionals doubt the court would reverse Monday’s ruling by Leon County Judge N. Sanders Sauls.
So while Democrats have agreed to take their fight no further than the Florida Supreme Court, yesterday they expanded their definition of that fight to include the Seminole and Martin cases.
The expansion might buy a little more time for the Democrats, who are worried the Florida Supreme Court might swiftly reject or perhaps not even hear Mr. Gore’s appeal of the Sauls ruling.
“Those two cases are likely to travel the same route as the case that went into Judge Sauls’ court and will end up in the Florida Supreme Court,” the vice president said of the Seminole and Martin lawsuits. “All of the current controversy will end up being resolved, one way or another, in the Florida Supreme Court.”
Gore officials now hope that resolution will be a dramatic, last-minute victory via the Seminole and Martin cases.
While acknowledging these lawsuits are politically unpopular, the Gore team increasingly views them as a potentially cleaner legal victory than the Sauls case, which suffered a crushing repudiation of each and every Gore argument.
The shift in strategy also prevents Mr. Gore from being locked into a “sudden death” scenario that hinges on the outcome of the Sauls case alone.
Mr. Gore cannot lose the Sauls appeal until at least tomorrow, by which time he might score at least a tentative victory through the Seminole and Martin cases, which go to trial today.
Mr. Gore’s willingness to embrace two lawsuits that until yesterday he considered radioactive signaled the vice president’s growing desperation.
With the post-election debacle entering its fifth week and the deadline for selecting Florida’s 25 electors just six days away, the vice president is rapidly running out of time and legal options.
Even the plaintiffs in the Seminole and Martin lawsuits one of whom has strong connections to Mr. Gore acknowledge that no ballots are tainted.
Rather, they say that Republicans but not Democrats were let inside election headquarters to help fill out some of the absentee applications.
“The Democratic Party chair was denied the opportunity to even look at the list of applications,” Mr. Gore said of the Seminole case.
“The Republican Party workers were allowed to roam around unsupervised inside the office and bring their computers in and fix all of the ballot applications for one side, even as the Democrats were denied an opportunity to come in, denied a chance to even look at the application. And those applications were thrown out.
“Now that doesn’t seem fair to me,” he said. “And apparently in Martin County, they were able to go in and take all the applications home with them.”
Although Mr. Gore repeatedly pointed out that he is “not a party” to the Seminole and Martin cases, he clearly considers them his best hope of erasing Texas Gov. George W. Bush’s certified, 537-vote victory in Florida.
The vice president emphasized that “more than enough votes were potentially taken away from Democrats because they were not given the same access that Republicans were.”
But in order to gain those votes, the vice president would have to disenfranchise at least 13,000 voters whose ballots and applications, by all accounts, were untainted.
That’s because of the 15,000 ballots that Democrats want to discard in Seminole, only 2,000 resulted from applications that were completed with the help of Republican officials.
But because there is no way to retroactively match ballots to their corresponding applications, the county would have to throw out all 15,000 of its absentee votes. That would give Mr. Gore a net gain of about 4,800 votes more than enough to overturn the Bush victory.
To protest this scenario, scores of Republicans from Seminole County showed up yesterday outside the Leon County Circuit Courthouse, where the lawsuits are being tried, and chanted: “Count my vote.”
Ironically, it was the same chant used earlier by Democratic demonstrators in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, predominantly Democratic areas where Mr. Gore claims many votes for him were never tallied.
The demonstration occurred during a pre-trail hearing in the courtroom of Leon County Circuit Judge Nikki Clark, a Democrat who was passed over for an appellate position by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of the would-be president.
Aside from the Seminole and Martin cases, Mr. Gore still is pursuing a full-throated appeal of the Sauls case. Although it is considered a long shot, the vice president cannot afford to forgo any of his dwindling legal options.
Yesterday, the Florida Supreme Court gave both sides until noon today to submit written briefs on whether it should re-examine the Sauls ruling. Each side then will have 30 minutes to make oral arguments on the same question, beginning at 10 a.m. tomorrow.
“The court has not actually taken the case,” cautioned court spokesman Craig Waters. “It is simply scheduling arguments and will hear arguments.”
But Mr. Gore’s running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, expressed confidence that the Florida Supreme Court will hand the White House to him and his boss.
“Judge Sauls’ decision was a disappointment,” Mr. Lieberman said. “We believe, and our lawyers certainly believe, that that decision was wrong on the law.
“And we therefore go to the final arbiter the Florida Supreme Court, the system of justice, the rule of law for a judgment in this case, which we think will be the final judgment, and we hope, and sincerely believe, will be a favorable judgment for us,” he added. “We’re also confident that this can be done expeditiously, both the judgment of the Florida Supreme Court and the count of that ballots that we hope and believe will result from that judgment.”
But even if the Florida Supreme Court rules for the Gore-Lieberman ticket immediately after hearing arguments tomorrow, that would leave only five days in which to count ballots.
While that might be possible if Mr. Gore can limit the tally to what he considers the most promising 14,000 ballots from Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, it would be much more difficult if the court rules that all counties would have to recount their ballots, which add up to more than 1 million.
Even if such a count was completed and the Democrats were able to force Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris a Republican who was co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Florida to certify a Gore victory, the state legislature stands poised to restore Florida’s 25 electors to Mr. Bush on Tuesday, the federal deadline.
The Republican-dominated legislature has not yet called a special session because it feels such a move is unnecessary and politically unpopular.
Nonetheless, lawmakers have shown a willingness to step in notwithstanding public relations considerations if their inaction would result in a Gore presidency.
“Republicans want George Bush to win and will make sure that happens,” Democrat Lois Frankel, Florida House minority leader, acknowledged yesterday.
To discourage that scenario, Democrats flew more than a dozen protesters from Miami-Dade to the state Capitol here yesterday. They accosted Republican House member Mario Diaz-Balart in a corridor and one exclaimed: “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
The group then headed into the office of House Speaker Tom Feeney, demanding an audience with the lawmaker. An aide asked the group to wait in the hall or he would have to call security.
“Now you want to threaten us?” said one of the demonstrators, Greg Ullman. The group later dispersed.
The legislative and judicial branches of Florida government now have more control over the selection of the president than the federal courts, which have waded into several aspects of the post-election quagmire.
Yesterday, a federal appeals court in Atlanta heard arguments in two Republican lawsuits that question the constitutionality of hand recounts in only a few Democratic counties. The lawsuits charge that these recounts, which were demanded by Mr. Gore, dilute the impact of votes cast in the rest of Florida’s 67 counties.
All 12 justices of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals mulled whether this amounts to a violation of the equal protection clause contained in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Meanwhile, lawyers for Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush filed written briefs yesterday with the Florida Supreme Court in a case adjudicated Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Specifically, the higher court vacated the lower court’s extension of Florida’s election certification deadline to accommodate tardy recounts in Democratic counties.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that its counterpart in Florida had failed to justify such a decision and instructed it to try again. The Florida court, in turn, asked for briefs on the matter from both the Bush and Gore camps.
Steve Miller contributed to this report.