- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 15, 2000

Yesterday's court order upholding last night's deadline to finish Florida vote tallies attempted to satisfy opposing interests of absolute precision and a growing national sentiment to decide the election.

Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis said the law requiring Secretary of State Katherine Harris to shut the door to more recounts if not quite bolting it seeks "to balance the desire for accuracy with the desire for finality."

"We anticipate knowing on Saturday who won the state when all the absentee ballots are in," said state attorney Donna Blanton, among the team representing Mrs. Harris.

That set the stage for phase two: challenges by any voter or "unsuccessful candidate" to contest the election's outcome. Disputes over the past week have focused on process: How ballots were designed or counted without directly attacking the results.

Since 1984, Florida courts have ruled there is no "unsuccessful candidate" until a vote is certified, so Mrs. Harris' certification of the vote could clear the way for new lawsuits by formalizing George W. Bush's narrow lead.

Pointedly, Judge Lewis noted that state law specifically includes as a ground for disputing a Florida election "rejection of a number of legal votes sufficient to change or place in doubt the result of the election."

Among other grounds for subsequent lawsuits:

• So much misconduct, fraud, or corruption by election officials that it casts doubt on the election result.

• Discovery of enough illegal votes to change the outcome, which usually involves fraudulent absentee ballots.

• "Any other cause or allegation" proving an election outcome was contrary to that reported by a canvassing board or election board.

In addition, Volusia County appealed Judge Lewis' decision to a midlevel Florida appeals court, saying it needed more time to finish its hand recount, although it was able to finish it yesterday afternoon. A spokesman for the campaign of Vice President Al Gore said Democrats support that appeal.

Yesterday's ruling refused outright to accept the interpretation of state law urged by the Gore camp, which argued that the deadline for counties to certify their vote was flexible and could be waived across the board.

The judge said counties "must certify and file what election returns they have" by last night at 5 p.m. and notify Mrs. Harris of any pending manual recounts, then submit any "supplemental or corrective returns."

Judge Lewis said the secretary of state is free to ignore those tardy revisions but advised her to keep an open mind. Mrs. Harris last night said Mr. Bush was officially leading by 300 votes, pending the inclusion of overseas ballots. She added that any counties contemplating hand recounts had to send to her by 2 p.m. today their justifications for any more recounts.

The Bush campaign yesterday continued their campaign against such hand recounts, filing a notice of appeal in Atlanta asking the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to block all hand recounts, appealing Monday's denial of that request by a Miami federal judge.

Among the state's 67 counties, only Palm Beach and Volusia joined the lawsuit as plaintiffs and yesterday's state court order covers only those two counties.

The judge ordered Mrs. Harris not to decide in advance "as to whether or not to ignore late-filed returns, if any, from Plaintiff Canvassing Boards, until due consideration of all relevant facts and circumstances consistent with the sound exercise of discretion."

"[She] may ignore such late filed returns, but may not do so arbitrarily," said the judge who denied motions by the counties and Gore campaign to compel Miss Harris to accept what counties submit, whenever it is filed.

However, Miss Blanton also said Miss Harris will consider the circumstances of any late changes to the vote from all 67 counties, not just the two that sued and were covered by the judge's order.

While that was far from a guarantee that late results would change her certified tally, the statement and last night's request for letters justifying further recounts represented a softening of Monday's position that any results not in by 5 p.m. would be ignored.

The Gore campaign declared victory despite the major setback.

"The court opinion on this case is tantamount to the objection that we sought," said former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Judge Lewis said: "Just as the secretary of state cannot decide ahead of time what late returns should or should not be ignored, it would not be proper for me to do so by injunction."

That was far from a defeat for Mrs. Harris or the Bush campaign, as the judge pointed out, saying he only told her to do her job.

"I can lawfully direct the secretary to properly exercise her discretion in making a decision on the returns, but I cannot enjoin the secretary to make a particular decision, nor can I rewrite the statute, which by its plain meaning, mandates the filing of returns by the canvassing board by 5 p.m. on Nov. 14," Judge Lewis wrote.

Miss Blanton could not specify what "facts and circumstances" might enter the decision to accept or reject late recounts.

Today, Palm Beach County will begin its task, which could take six days. Miami-Dade County officials also conducted a partial hand recount but decided last night against a total recount. Broward County made the same decision Monday night. Mr. Gore was fighting Broward in court, and was considering forcing Miami-Dade to recount, Democratic sources told the Associated Press.

Although Mrs. Harris' office was cautious about indicating it had prejudged the issue, the Palm Beach County recount is unlikely to be completed in time for her stated desire to certify a final result by Saturday.

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