| || ELECTIONS 2000/ White House
Fla. Election Certification on Hold
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, November 18, 2000; Page A1
The Florida Supreme Court intervened dramatically yesterday in the nation's tangled presidential election, ordering Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris to withhold certifying the results until the court rules on Vice President Gore's legal challenges to her authority and the validity of the Florida vote count.
The unanimous order blocked a Republican plan to declare Texas Gov. George W. Bush the winner of Florida's crucial 25 electoral votes and the presidency today, and assured that the identify of the president-elect will not be known until at least Monday, when the Florida high court has scheduled oral arguments on the Gore legal challenges.
In a simple, two sentence statement, the court said it was taking the action "to maintain the status quo," but that it was not intended to stop the counting of overseas absentee ballots that were due in Florida by midnight tonight and the manual recounting of ballots in three heavily Democratic Florida counties.
On a day of roller-coaster developments, the Supreme Court order instantly transformed the legal, political and emotional atmosphere surrounding the bitterly contested election. Only hours earlier, a lower court Florida judge appeared to have cleared a path to the White House for Bush, leaving Gore aides to plead for time to make their case before the state Supreme Court and cautioning Bush to "not begin the partying" if Harris went through with her plan to declare the Texas governor the winner today.
Shortly after the court's announcement, Gore appeared outside the vice president's residence in Washington to read a statement. "The citizens of Florida surely want the candidate who received the most votes in Florida to be determined the winner of that state," he said. "That's why I'm very pleased that the hand counts are continuing. ... And that is why the decision just announced by the Florida Supreme Court preventing the Florida secretary of state from certifying the election results tomorrow is so important."
In Tallahassee, Bush's chief representative in Florida, former secretary of state James A. Baker III, later appeared before television cameras to note that the state Supreme Court order merely preserved the status quo and to express confidence that the Bush campaign would prevail.
Baker also saw a silver lining in another legal setback that the Bush campaign suffered yesterday in Atlanta, where the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously rejected its request to halt the manual recounts. Reaffirming a lower federal court ruling, the appeals court said that states "have the primary authority" to resolve their own elections controversies. But Baker noted that the appeals court "specifically noted that we are free to return to federal court to present our constitutional challenges" after Florida courts have ruled.
The day began with Leon County Circuit Court Judge Terry P. Lewis handing Bush a major victory, ruling that Harris, a Republican and Bush stalwart, acted with proper discretion when she decided not to include the results of the manual recounts of votes in a final certification of statewide election returns that she planned to issue today.
Hours later, the Gore campaign announced that it was asking the Florida Supreme Court to overturn Lewis's decision and to rule that certification of Bush as the statewide winner would be invalid because it involved the rejection of votes that could have changed the election outcome or put it in doubt.
With time running out and the end-game apparently at hand, former secretary of state Warren Christopher, who is heading Gore's team in Florida, appealed to Harris to delay the official certification to allow time for the state Supreme Court to rule on the Gore challenges.
"Wouldn't it be unfortunate if this matter were concluded by her action tomorrow and then the Supreme Court of Florida were to reach a different conclusion at some time in the future?" Christopher said in Tallahassee. "Or, indeed, that it turned out that Vice President Gore had received more votes in Florida than Governor Bush? So I think the plea that I have is that we take time, that we wait just these few days necessary to reach a result that will enhance the legitimacy of the next president of the United States."
In pointed remarks aimed directly at Bush, Christopher added: "I hope that Governor Bush will not attach finality to tomorrow's result, will not begin the partying, but will give the Florida Supreme Court an opportunity to act in the matter.
Then the Supreme Court intervened, making moot the Gore pleas for more time and the Bush plan to declare the election over.
Meanwhile, there were several other minor legal skirmishes over the election in Florida yesterday, including a hearing in Palm Beach County on whether to order a new vote there because of alleged deficiencies in the county's so-called butterfly ballot. Circuit Court Judge Jorge Labarga said he will issue a ruling in the case next week.
Last night, Bush still clung to a 478-vote lead over Gore in Florida, where the eventual winner will claim the presidency. Absentee ballots from Florida citizens living out of the country that have been received since Election Day were to be announced today and added to the existing returns from the state's 67 counties.
Historically, the overseas absentee ballots have included a large military element and have tended to favor GOP candidates. The Bush campaign clearly expected its lead over Gore to grow after the overseas absentee ballots are included in the vote totals, a major reason that Bush aides were confident that Harris would be able to certify Bush as the winner today.
According to an Associated Press survey, with overseas absentee ballots in 55 counties counted last night Bush had picked up 466 votes and Gore had gained 288.
Gore's hopes rest on the manual recount of ballots that continued yesterday in Palm Beach and Broward counties, and in Miami-Dade County, where the elections canvassing board voted 2 to 1 yesterday to conduct a full manual recount of all ballots. But whether new tallies from those recounts will be included in the final, official Florida returns will depend on how the state Supreme Court rules.
According to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 56 percent of Americans want the manual recounts of ballots to be included in the final statewide results from Florida. But the survey also suggested that there may be a limit to the public's patience with the legal and political battle that is raging in Florida.
Fifty-seven percent of those interviewed Thursday night said it was more important that the president be determined within a week, while 40 percent said it was more important to wait to allow the campaigns to "make their full case in court."
Harris, the Florida secretary of state who has been at the center of the presidential election storm, set the stage for yesterday's dramatic developments by announcing that she would not accept any election returns from Florida counties after 5 p.m. Tuesday, the deadline in state law for the counties to report. Her decision would effectively preclude the manual recounts then underway from the final Florida results and was challenged in court by the Gore campaign.
Lewis ruled Tuesday that Harris could ignore the results of the manual recounts but could not do so arbitrarily. In his brief ruling yesterday, the Leon County judge, a Democrat, said that based on "the limited evidence presented" it appeared that Harris had not arbitrarily exceeded her "broad discretionary authority to accept or reject late filed returns."
After Lewis's ruling yesterday, Gore lawyer David Boies outlined the grounds on which the campaign intended to appeal, and which it will now argue before the state Supreme Court on Monday. He said they will continue to argue that Harris acted prematurely when she decided that only the vote counts she had received by 5 p.m. Tuesday would be included in her final certification of statewide returns.
Boies said the Gore campaign will also argue that any vote certification that excludes the results of the manual recounts would be improper under Florida law because it would involve "the rejection of a number of legal votes sufficient to change or place in doubt the result of the election."
The state Supreme Court's dramatic intervention caught both presidential campaigns off guard, lifting the Gore camp out of a gathering gloom and interrupting preliminary celebrations in Austin after Lewis issued his morning ruling.
"We knew we were dealing with reality," one Gore strategist said of the reaction to the ruling that temporarily paved the way for Harris to certify Bush as the winner today. "People were unhappy but we didn't have many options. The only real option was to go to the Supreme Court."
By 3 p.m. yesterday, Gore aides had summoned reporters to the front lawn of the vice president's residence at the Naval Observatory for a statement urging patience and a full manual recount of votes. When the Supreme Court issued its order, Gore retreated to an upstairs study with aides Carter Eskew and Julia Payne and added a sentence to the statement applauding the court action, Payne said.
In Austin, Bush's campaign maintained a publicly cautious face, even as aides whooped and high-fived at news of Lewis's ruling. Although campaign aides insisted that no festivities had been planned, officials at the Four Seasons hotel said that the Bush campaign had arranged to use a ballroom on Sunday, presumably for a victory celebration.
Slevin reported from Tallahassee. Staff writers Mike Allen in Austin and Ceci Connolly in Washington contributed to this report.