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Florida Secretary of State sets deadline

The Associated Press

MIAMI – George W.

Monday, November 13, 2000

MIAMI – George W. Bush’s lawyers sought a federal court order Monday to block manual recounts in Florida’s Democratic-controlled counties. The state’s top election official said all county vote counts must be finished by 5 p.m. Tuesday.

With the presidential contest in overtime, both sides think the laborious, ballot-by-ballot inspections in heavily Democratic portions of all-important Florida could favor Gore, who has narrowed Bush’s slim lead through machine and hand recounts since last Tuesday’s election.

While the court hearing was getting under way, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, a Republican who campaigned for Bush, told Gore advisers she would maintain the Tuesday deadline to certify ballots. Three of the manual recounts requested by Democrats in four Florida counties probably cannot be completed by then.

Harris said Florida needs a ”clear, final result within a reasonable time” for an election that will determine the next president. She said ”the process of counting and recounting the votes cast on Election Day must end.”

Gore’s team cried foul, and promised a quick appeal.

”We regard the action of the secretary to be arbitrary and unreasonable,” said Warren Christopher, a former secretary of state acting as Gore’s top attorney. He suggested that Harris was biased because of her ties to Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks, who was nominated to the bench by President Clinton, agreed to hear the Bush camp’s claim that the recounts are unconstitutional.

Television networks requested cameras be allowed in the courtroom, but the judge denied the request.

On the ballot matter, the judge will measure Bush’s claims against four legal tests before deciding whether to step in. The toughest test for the Texas governor appears to be proving that voters would suffer ”irreparable harm” if the counts go forward.

After chastising Democrats for threatening a lawsuit over the unresolved presidential election, it was the GOP that sued first.

The gist of the Republican claim is that the hand recounts in only four of Florida’s 67 counties amount to unequal treatment for some Florida residents. The 14th Amendment guarantees all Americans equal protection under the law.

Democrats filed court papers Sunday night defending the constitutionality of Florida’s manual ballot law. Led by Harvard University law professor Laurence Tribe, party lawyers also said Bush’s complaint threatens Florida’s right to run its own elections.

Under Florida law, manual recounts are allowed if a candidate meets a post-election deadline to request them and the local election board agrees.

The Bush camp argues that hand recounts are a sort of third election – after the regular Nov. 7 voting and an automated recount that took place last week.

”Counting these same ballots again and again will not produce a more accurate result, only more delay and confusion,” Bush and running mate Dick Cheney charged in the suit filed Saturday.

The suit names election officials in Miami-Dade, Volusia, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

If Bush fails in court, senior strategists say he may seek his own recounts in some GOP-dominated Florida counties. Bush also could demand recounts in close-voting states won by Gore, such as Iowa, Wisconsin, Oregon – or too-close-to-call New Mexico.

A manual recount in heavily Democratic Broward County requested by Gore was to begin Monday, and Miami-Dade officials planned to meet Tuesday to consider a recount request there.

In Volusia County, the Daytona Beach area, officials began a manual recount of all 184,018 ballots, despite Bush’s pending request to stop it.

Republicans previewed their court argument Sunday, warning that the recounts expose Florida to political mischief and human error.

Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who is leading the Florida legal and public relations effort for Bush, described the Florida standoff as ”a black mark on our democracy and on our process.”

Warren Christopher, former secretary of state in the Clinton administration, portrayed vote recounts as a small necessity of democracy.

”If at the end of the day, George Bush has more votes in Florida than we do, certainly the vice president will concede,” Christopher said.

Christopher did not say when the standoff might end – only that resolution is likely within days as opposed to weeks. He left open the possibility that Democrats would bring their own lawsuit if recounting ends with Bush still ahead.

The palm trees and high rises of downtown Miami are backdrop for the unprecedented political and historical drama playing out nearly a week after America thought it would elect its next president.

Updated voting figures in Florida gave Bush a 288-vote margin out of some 6 million votes cast.

Gore leads in the nationwide popular vote, but the Electoral College tally is so close that the eventual winner in Florida is almost certain to win the White House.

No final answer seemed likely before Nov. 17, when Florida stops counting ballots mailed in from Americans living overseas.

Bush would have to win Oregon, Iowa, New Mexico and Wisconsin to claim the White House without Florida – a long shot given that Gore is leading by 5,000 or more votes in all those states but New Mexico.

Apart from Florida, Bush carried 29 states for 246 electoral votes. Gore, who added Oregon to his column on Friday, counted 19 states plus the District of Columbia for 262 electoral votes, with 270 needed for victory.