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Court ruling culminates tumultuous 24 hours in Florida

Members of a Florida canvassing board discuss ballot counting procedures  

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) -- Hours after weighing into a task of historic consequence, judges and election officials in a Tallahassee public library walked away from a count of thousands of Florida presidential election votes.

First they heard a rumor the U.S. Supreme Court had blocked the effort, which could hand the election to Democrat Al Gore. Then official word came. Supporters of Republican candidate George W. Bush, who leads Gore in the state's certified tally, broke into cheers.

"Strike the tents," said David Lang, chief clerk of Leon County Circuit Court. The counters left their counting tables and court administrators locked the doors to the rooms to safeguard the ballots, which were then packed into boxes.

The counted and disputed ballots were then sealed with red evidence tape and, along with a separate box of uncounted ballots, hauled back to the Leon County Circuit Court by sheriff's deputies.

The suspension of the recount culminated a 24-hour period as unpredictable and momentous as any in the extraordinary legal and political drama that erupted after the disputed Nov. 7 U.S. presidential election.

The Supreme Court ruling immediately deflated Gore's hopes of wresting the election from Bush's grasp, hopes which had soared when Florida's highest court Friday afternoon said a recount could go ahead.

Judge Terry Lewis, charged with overseeing the recount after the original judge in the case, his colleague N. Sanders Sauls recused himself, held a session late into Friday night debating how to go about the recount.

Start and stop

The officials began the task of counting the disputed ballots from Miami-Dade County shortly after 9 a.m. on Saturday morning and stopped their count about 3 p.m. in the afternoon. Recounts elsewhere in Florida also halted but the Tallahassee count of some 9,000 ballots from Miami-Dade had been the center of attention.

The recount was seen as Gore's best hope of overcoming Bush in the closest presidential election of modern times. If Gore could reverse Bush's narrow lead in Florida's certified result it would give him the state's pivotal 25 electoral votes and the White House.

After the Florida Supreme Court order Friday, Bush had a lead of 154 votes out of six million cast in the state which fate has decreed will decide the presidency. That reverted to a 537 lead for Bush after the U.S. Supreme Court voided the earlier adjustment.

The Florida high court had ordered recounts in all counties in the state with ballots not properly read by vote-counting machines or previously recounted by hand -- roughly 43,000 ballots from 64 counties.

Seeking to be beyond reproach

"They want this to be an absolutely beyond-reproach situation," Lang said earlier as county judges began tallying the Miami-Dade ballots.

The tables had been set up in partitioned rooms, one scattered with puppets for children's story time and others normally used as meeting rooms for yoga and cooking classes, civic organizations and La Leche League, which promotes breast-feeding.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court order came through, New York Gov. George Pataki, a Republican, came to watch and said the recounts would lead to "nothing but chaos."

Then in the early afternoon, said counter Judge Tim Harley, they heard a rumor about the U.S. Supreme Court order but kept working until Judge Lewis told them to stop.

"We are all in a state of suspended animation," Lang said.

Lang said they had counted about 40 percent of Miami-Dade's votes and "most were true non-votes. I do not know the number."

Leon County Elections supervisor Ion Sancho said a lot of changes had been discovered.

"There were changes in all directions," Sancho said, declining to say whether the changes favored Bush or Gore.

Waves of relief and disbelief

A Republican observer said a wave of relief swept Bush supporters in the counting room when the halt order came. As news of the U.S. Supreme Court action reached the crowd of about 100 Bush supporters outside, they began to chant "We got the stay, we got the stay," and "Give it up Gore."

A smaller group of about a dozen Gore supporters also began to shout but their words were drowned out. "We were very disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court granted that stay," said Gore's top attorney, David Boies, afterward.

"We think that that stay interrupts a counting of the votes that's very important to go on. Regardless of what you think the winner is going to be or the loser's going to be, those are legal votes, those are votes that have been cast by the people and we think they ought to be counted," he said.

Another Gore attorney, Ron Klain, said Gore's net gain from recounting was 58 votes -- an announcement which drew indignant accusations from Bush lawyers that he had violated a court ban on any premature revealing of figures.

A leading Bush operative, Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, said the recount had been "a judicial misadventure." He said it was "inherently flawed and incapable of producing a fair result."

Problems reported

In Hillsborough County, electoral officials also interrupted the process. When the order came they had still been in the process of sorting ballots prior to beginning a recount proper. They said they would continue sorting but not start a recount.

Some counties reported problems earlier Saturday. Although they knew how many undervotes they had, they lacked the sophisticated computer software to sort out those ballots.

Lewis had ordered them to complete their recounts by 2 p.m. EST Sunday -- a deadline later rendered moot -- but Duval County, which encompasses Jacksonville, asked Lewis to give them until Tuesday to finish.

A technician flew in early Saturday to install the software Duval needed to sort 5,000 undervotes from the county's 291,000 ballots, a task that would have taken 14 hours.

Elections officials in much smaller Bradford County asked their equipment maker to rush them new sorting software Saturday so they could have begun hand-counting on Sunday.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


Saturday, December 9, 2000


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