| || ELECTIONS 2000/ White House
Up by 930, Bush Side Assails Recount
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 19, 2000; Page A1
Texas Gov. George W. Bush emerged with a 930-vote lead over Vice President Gore in Florida after a final tabulation of the overseas absentee ballots yesterday, as the Bush campaign launched a fierce attack against the hand counting underway in three counties, calling the process so "fundamentally flawed" that it is "reinventing . . . the true intentions" of the voters.
Bush communications director Karen Hughes, in a sharp escalation of the rhetorical warfare, also accused Gore allies of seeking to toss out a substantial number of absentee ballots cast by members of the military stationed abroad. "No one who aspires to be commander in chief should seek to unfairly deny the votes of the men and women he would seek to command," she said.
The legal and political conflict threatened to spin out of control, as Gore advisers instantly lashed back, accusing the Bush campaign of a "hypocritical" attack and arguing that the Republicans were simply trying to "disparage the process" after spending the week trying to slow down the manual recounting of the votes.
Gore legal adviser Ron Klain said the Bush campaign's efforts to block hand counting in various counties amounted to an effort by the Republicans "to exclude the votes of men and women in uniform," including police officers and firefighters.
As the two sides exchanged angry words, the counting continued in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Gore's strategy is to show enough additional votes by the time the state Supreme Court meets on Monday to make it clear that he has a good chance of winning the popular vote once the recounting is complete.
By late afternoon, Gore had gained 59 votes in Broward after the completion of the recount in 210 of the county's 609 precincts. But with no hard numbers emerging from Palm Beach, where there was constant bickering between the two sides, it was not possible to determine whether Gore was picking up enough votes to overtake Bush.
Meanwhile, officials in Miami-Dade County decided to begin recounting by hand an estimated 654,000 ballots on Monday but warned that they might not finish until Dec. 1.
The rhetorical war exploded suddenly on what had been expected to be a relatively quiet day in the post-election controversy over who won the presidency, with both sides pointing to oral arguments before the Florida Supreme Court on Monday afternoon as the potentially pivotal moment in resolving the dispute.
Gore's legal team filed its brief yesterday afternoon, accusing Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris of acting in a "Kafkaesque" fashion to frustrate the hand-counting process, first by trying to block the hand counting and then by announcing that she would not include the hand-counted results in her certified tabulations.
"There is an overwhelming interest in ensuring that every vote is counted," Gore's lawyers said in their brief, adding that it is "critical that the Elections Canvassing Commission's decision be made on the basis of the most accurate vote count possible."
The Bush campaign will file its brief today. But seemingly concerned with the political effect of Friday's Supreme Court order preventing Harris from certifying the election results while allowing the recounting to continue, the campaign put forward Montana Gov. Marc Racicot (R), one of Bush's closest friends and advisers, in a new effort to discredit the entire process.
Racicot claimed there was "clear and compelling evidence" that the hand counting had become "completely untrustworthy," but the situation on the ground in South Florida, while filled with controversy and complaint, was somewhat murkier.
Bush's campaign had hoped that after the counting of the overseas absentee ballots, Harris would certify Bush as the winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes, which he needs to get the 270 votes necessary to become president. But the overseas absentee ballots simply added one more set of numbers to the state's ever-changing semiofficial tally.
On the morning after Election Day, Bush held a 1,784-vote lead over Gore, narrow enough to trigger an automatic machine recanvassing of the vote. Once that was concluded, and after the hand counting in Volusia County, Bush's lead was reduced to 300 votes.
The overseas absentee ballots yielded 1,380 additional votes for Bushl and 750 more votes for Gore, giving Bush a total of 2,911,872 to Gore's 2,910,942. Bush had been expected to gain ground from those overseas absentee ballots, but Republicans and Democrats agreed that he netted fewer votes than anticipated. Gore supporters hope they can overcome Bush's new margin through the hand counting in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties.
An estimated 1,420 overseas absentee ballots were rejected by officials in the state's 67 counties. An undetermined number of ballots from military personnel abroad were rejected because they lacked postmarks.
Bush campaign officials accused the Gore side of targeting those military ballots for protests, and retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf issued a statement distributed by the Bush campaign that said in part, "It is a very sad day in our country when the men and women of the armed forces [who] are serving abroad and facing danger . . . are denied the right to vote" because of what he called "some technicality out of their control."
Gore advisers said they were not aware of any statewide strategy to protest military absentee ballots, noting that county officials were the ones deciding whether to count or exclude those ballots. Doug Hattaway, a Gore spokesman, called on the Bush camp to stop "bad-mouthing the public-minded citizens" on the front lines in Florida's counting dispute.
Klain, in a conference call with reporters, said he was surprised to find the Bush campaign suddenly protesting that ballots were not being counted after seeking to stop hand counting in state and federal courts. "Their newfound dedication to the counting of ballots, while welcome, seems a little off," he said.
The Bush campaign news conference caught the Gore camp by surprise. Gore advisers had planned to take a low-key approach to the public relations battle until the state Supreme Court hears the case on Monday.
Racicot has emerged as a Bush confidant, and his presence at the lectern was a clear signal of the Republican candidate's endorsement of an escalation in the rhetorical effort to undermine the hand-counting process. His remarks laid the groundwork for additional challenges in the event of a Supreme Court decision that requires Harris to include the results of the manual recounts in the state tally before certifying the winner.
Racicot challenged Democratic assertions that the process is bipartisan, arguing that genuine disputes are being decided by county canvassing boards dominated by Democrats. Racicot claimed "irreparable damage" to the system as a result of the hand counting, saying he believes the American people would be "flabbergasted to learn" about what is happening in South Florida.
He cited chads taped to a few ballots, some Bush ballots found in a stack of Gore ballots, chads strewn across the counting room floor, ballots used as fans by weary county workers operating in overheated rooms, ballots spilled on the floor and then stepped on, and elderly vote counters near exhaustion from the long hours of work.
"I think when the American people learn about these things, they're going to ask themselves what in the name of God is going on here," Racicot said.
Racicot also complained that 39 felons had allegedly been allowed to vote in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, as reported in yesterday's Miami Herald. "How can felons be allowed to vote while the men and women in our armed forces cannot?" he asked. "That's simply not right."
Democrats disputed many of the specifics of Racicot's charges and offered a blanket countercharge: that Republicans were employing a strategy of delay and were needlessly challenging legitimately cast votes in an effort to frustrate the process.
"The Bush campaign has done everything to stop the hand counting of everyone's votes all across the state," Hattaway said.
Hattaway asserted that Florida law allows hand counting and that the Floridians working to recount the votes were doing the best they could under trying circumstances.
Gore remained out of sight in Washington during the day yesterday and in the evening canceled a trip to Nashville, where he had been scheduled to attend a daylong conference on family issues. Bush, sporting a cowboy hat on a rainy, cold day, emerged for a brief trip to his office in the Texas capitol.
Staff writers Serge F. Kovaleski, George Lardner Jr. and Peter Slevin contributed to this report.