TALLAHASSEE, FLORIDA — The Florida Supreme Court refused to bar the manual recount of election ballots in two predominantly Democratic counties that could determine which candidate wins the U.S. presidency.
The state's highest court unanimously rejected a petition by Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican, to prevent the resumption of the recounts, though the justices said she could still take her request to a lower court.
The justices, all appointees of Democratic governors, also indicated they may decide as early as tomorrow whether the counties have legal authority to resume their hand examination and counting of ballots. Palm Beach and Broward counties had sought the court's guidance after receiving conflicting legal opinions from Republican and Democratic state officials.
According to the latest recount, Republican George W. Bush leads Democrat Al Gore by 300 votes out of 6 million cast. The winner in Florida will almost certainly be named the next U.S. president.
The order came as Republicans accused Gore's presidential campaign of seeking to stretch litigation indefinitely. James A. Baker III, Bush's point man in Florida charged that "the Gore campaign has not been willing to make any commitment to accept finality in this election unless it achieves the results it is seeking."
Gore aides today asked the Supreme Court to let the recount proceed in Palm Beach and Broward counties with a "reasonable deadline" for completion
A 12-member U.S. appeals court in Atlanta, meanwhile, moved quickly to consider Bush's appeal of a Miami federal judge's refusal to stop the hand counts. Legal experts, however, predicted the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals would leave the matter up to Florida state courts.
Harris asked Florida's highest court to consolidate almost a dozen election-related cases under Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis. Yesterday Lewis handed Harris a partial victory by refusing to extend the state's vote-tally deadline.
"This court must make it clear that the election of the president and vice president is not a matter of local pleasure," Harris said in her court filing. "It is, at the least, a statewide matter of concern."
Democrats asked the state's highest court to resolve all issues itself, without waiting for a lower court. All seven state high court justices were appointed by Democratic governors. The court gave no timetable on when it would act on the petitions. Republicans argued the court lacked authority to get involved in the dispute at this time.
Gore lawyer David Boies suggested Republicans were trying to delay hand counts to ensure a Bush victory. "The game here may be, I hope not, but it may be to delay those recounts as long as possible and then bring down the curtain."
Democrats said they would also ask the state's highest court to set standards for hand counts, which Boies called "a traditional part of Florida law."
In her filing today, Harris said the manual recounts must be halted because "the integrity of the ballots themselves are in serious jeopardy" from being repeatedly handled by local election judges.
Harris said she sought the consolidation of "multiple lawsuits before multiple judges" to avert "a significant risk of forum shopping, inconsistent results and loss of control necessary for the fair administration of justice."
Harris said she was reviewing requests by Palm Beach and Broward counties to submit more recount results following yesterday's 5 p.m. deadline. Absent sufficient justification for amended returns, Harris has said that on Saturday the state would certify as final results the votes submitted yesterday along with overseas absentee ballots that can't be counted until then.
Palm Beach County plans to recount all ballots by hand, examining each to determine the voter's intent. Some of the punch-card holes in the ballot were not completely removed and may have been rejected by counting machines. A hand count allows those ballots to be added.
Charles Burton, head of the Palm Beach County canvassing board, said he thought workers could complete a hand recount in six days. "If the Supreme Court says 'go,' we'll be ready to start in a half hour."
To justify a manual count, Palm Beach officials cited a sample recount of 1 percent of the vote that produced a 19-vote gain for Gore. Broward County officials, who reversed course and decided to recount all ballots, said its sample count turned up a net gain for Gore of four votes, indicating "an error in the vote tabulation which could affect the outcome of the election."
Miami-Dade County, the state's largest jurisdiction, voted to forgo a full recount after a sample of about 5,800 ballots turned up six more votes for Gore.
Harris contended that "ballots were degraded" by repeated handling during a manual recount in sample precincts, which may have removed the tiny pieces of punched card known as chad.
"Flying chads came off the ballots" as the cards were being examined, Harris said in her petition. "Observers were heard asking counters to stop 'flexing' the cards because of the potential hazard of dislodging the chads that otherwise may have been intact," she said.
A Florida trial judge, meanwhile, gave Palm Beach County election officials broad discretion to tabulate votes if they resume their manual recount. Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga ruled that the canvassing board could count presidential ballot cards with indentations, even if they lack a clearly visible punch hole.
Palm Beach Republicans, in turn, filed a motion asking that county commissioner Carol Roberts be recused from the board, said Robert Weisman the Palm Beach County administrator.
The Republicans accused Roberts of tampering with the ballots, said James Carroll, a lawyer for Florida's Republican Party. The election board refused to remove Roberts, saying no one objected to her handling of ballots during the recount.
Lewis ruled yesterday that Harris can't simply ignore the counts submitted after yesterday's deadline but must have a good reason for doing so. Gore's campaign wants the late hand counts, which would be from Democratic-leaning counties, to be included.
Florida courts are likely to decide the disputes, despite the action by the 11th Circuit in Atlanta to put Bush's appeal on a fast track. "There's always been a considerable deference by the federal courts to state election procedures," said Howard O. Hunter, dean of Emory University's law school.
Yet to be determined are the results of absentee votes from U.S. residents overseas — military personnel or citizens working or traveling outside the U.S. at election time. These ballots are due at midnight Friday. Historically, Republican candidates have won most of those voters.
The absentee ballots are mailed to the voter's home county, where they are counted and the results submitted to state officials in Tallahassee. About 1,400 overseas ballots have been received and weren't part of the tally released by Harris, said Ben McKay, spokesman for the secretary of state's office.
The results of that count will be available Saturday.
"And then the final result for the election of the president of the United States in the state of Florida will be announced," Harris said.