Miami-dade Cancels Recount; Bush Looks To Supreme Court Judge: `Dimple' Ballots Must Be Considered

Posted: November 23, 2000

In a chaotic day of escalation in the postelection fight for the presidency, manual recounts of ballots took dramatically opposing turns in two Florida counties, while George W. Bush appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to shut down the recounts altogether.

Dealing a startling setback to Al Gore, overwhelmed election officials in Miami-Dade County canceled their manual recount, shutting down a potential trove of votes for the vice president. His lawyers quickly appealed to force the recount to resume.

In Palm Beach County, a judge ordered officials to consider so-called dimpled ballots, punch cards with mere indentations, in their recount. The ruling, which Bush's lawyers were reviewing, means that up to 2,000 ballots that had been set aside could come into play.

The swirl of events came as Bush's running mate, Dick Cheney, was hospitalized with what his doctor called a "very slight heart attack." Doctors inserted a stent in an artery that had narrowed. They said Cheney was doing well and would be in the hospital for two or three days.

Tuesday night's Florida Supreme Court ruling, which gave new life to Gore's campaign by ordering manual recounts included in the state's final vote tally, was followed yesterday by significant moves by county officials and a flurry of court actions by both candidates.

Both men are short of the needed 270 Electoral College votes; whoever wins Florida's 25 electoral votes will win the White House.

Bush holds a 930-vote lead in the state. Gore has sought to overcome that through hand recounts in three heavily Democratic counties. Tuesday's ruling directed those recounts to be submitted to the state by 5 p.m. Sunday, when Secretary of State Katherine Harris' office will be open.

The decision by Miami-Dade, the most populous county, to abandon its recount was a blow to Gore's chances. Democrats had hoped Miami-Dade alone would yield more than enough votes for Gore to surpass Bush.

The Bush campaign, nevertheless, is pressing ahead with legal challenges to the U.S. Supreme Court and in a Florida state court.

The Texas governor asked the nation's highest court to review the Florida Supreme Court's ruling, and to bypass a federal appeals court and review a federal judge's decision last week not to block the recounts. Bush's lawyers also filed suit in Leon County seeking to require 13 counties with large military populations to accept overseas absentee ballots lacking postmarks.

"The count, the recount, and in some cases three and four counts show that Governor Bush and Secretary Cheney won the state of Florida," Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said in defending the appeal to the high court. ". . . We feel that by pressing forward . . . we are making sure that the legitimate desire of the people of Florida is honored and respected, and we feel we have an obligation to do that." Bush's lawyers asked the U.S. justices to grant quick review and decide "whether the use of selective, arbitrary and standardless recounts that threaten to overturn the results of the election for president of the United States violates the equal protection clause, the due process clause, and the First Amendment" of the Constitution.

Without a ruling, they said, "the consequences may well include the ascension of a president of questionable legitimacy, or a constitutional crisis."

Gore campaign spokesman Doug Hattaway responded that the appeal had no merit. "There's no way that counting people's votes can be unconstitutional," Hattaway said.

Bush's lawyers asked the justices to hear the case and rule before Dec. 18, when the Electoral College will convene, but they did not press for an immediate halt to the recount.

Miami-Dade, however, chose on its own yesterday to cancel its recount, just hours after having voted to count only 10,750 disputed ballots to save time. The cancellation came after a morning of protests and bickering over access to the ballot-counting process.

Canvassing board chairman Lawrence King, a Democrat, said the Sunday deadline to turn in recount results was impossible to meet. Missing it, King said, could mean that the county's entire count of its 654,000 votes could be rendered meaningless. That, he said, would be a "travesty."

Stunned by the turnabout, the Gore camp immediately sought to overturn the canvassing board's move. Gore campaign chairman William Daley said the board, by finding last week that a recount was necessary, had conceded that errors in the election had occurred.

"Under Florida law, once the finding is made, the recount is mandatory," Daley said.

In Palm Beach County, Circuit Judge Jorge Labarga ruled that the three-member county canvassing board must consider up to 2,000 questionable ballots - ones that have no punch-through, but perhaps show an indentation - that had been set aside while Labarga considered the case.

Labarga said the three-member board, all Democrats, could reject dimpled ballots only after seeking to determine the voters' intent. He said any ballot in which intent could not be discerned must be rejected. The ruling's potential effect was not immediately clear.

In Broward County, election officials agreed to sacrifice part of their Thanksgiving holiday to finish their hand recount before the Sunday deadline. Workers have finished recounting all 588,000 ballots from 609 precincts and most of the absentee ballots. The three-member canvassing commission will reconvene at 9 a.m. today to continue going through the remaining absentee and questionable ballots.

A sense of impending victory settled over Bush campaign headquarters during the day yesterday in the wake of Miami-Dade's suspension of its recount.

"You can't overstate what happened in Miami-Dade," one jubilant campaign adviser said. Gore "needed Miami-Dade. It's over."

But having been burned more than once by fast-breaking developments, the Bush camp avoided any outright declaration of victory.

It also pursued legal action on a second front, seeking the counting of absentee ballots in 13 counties that were rejected for lacking postmarks. The counties are Bay, Brevard, Clay, Collier, Duval, Escambia, Hillsborough, Manatee, Okaloosa, Orange, Pasco, Polk and Santa Rosa.

The case was assigned to Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis, who earlier ruled over the deadline for certifying all of Florida's ballots. It was Lewis' rulings the Florida Supreme Court reversed Tuesday night.

Bush's lawsuit stems from decisions by several county canvassing boards to reject absentee ballots, many from military personnel abroad or at sea, that did not display proof that they were mailed on or before Election Day.

Republicans have accused Democrats of exerting pressure on the boards to reject those ballots. Overall in the state, 1,500 ballots were rejected for not meeting any of several legal requirements.

Aides said they had no estimate of what numbers might change if the contested ballots were to be counted. "I don't know how much we expect to gain, but at this point, anything matters," Bush spokeswoman Mindy Tucker said.

Lewis yesterday ordered that the ballots in question be preserved.

Meanwhile, a judge in Seminole County scheduled a Monday hearing on allegations by Democrats that county officials improperly let Republican workers correct absentee-ballot forms that were to be delivered to GOP voters.

Separately yesterday, Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.) announced that he would introduce a bill to ensure that all absentee ballots cast by military personnel overseas would be counted. The bill will be retroactive to this year's election, he told Republican and Democratic veterans yesterday outside the Army National Guard Armory in Media, Pa.

With mounting evidence that the country was growing restive over the pitched fight for the presidency, President Clinton encouraged the country to be patient.

"Just let it play itself out," Clinton said at a Washington community food bank. "The process is working."

As legal documents flew around Florida, state lawmakers in Tallahassee discussed ways the Legislature could intervene and override the state Supreme Court. After the court ruling Tuesday night, former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker 3d, who is leading Bush's legal fight in Florida, practically invited the Republican-controlled Legislature to step in.

New Florida House Speaker Tom Feeney said he had summoned a law professor to advise the Legislature on its "constitutional prerogatives" to enter the controversy. But Feeney yesterday also urged everyone to "relax, take a deep breath for at least 24 hours."

In Austin, Bush weighed in against the court, saying in brief public remarks: "We believe the justices have used the bench to change Florida's election laws and usurp the authority of Florida's election officials. . . . It changed the rules, and it did so after the election was over."

The day began on a somber note with news that Cheney, the former defense secretary, had been admitted to George Washington University Hospital in Washington with chest pains.

Bush said about midday that he had spoken with Cheney and that "he sounded strong and vibrant." Cheney, 59, suffered three heart attacks more than a decade ago and underwent quadruple-bypass surgery in 1988. Doctors gave him a clean bill of health when he was chosen as Bush's running mate.

Bush planned to have Thanksgiving dinner with his family in Austin today before retreating to his ranch two hours away in Crawford.

"I feel great," he told reporters at the Texas Capitol. ". . .I'm confident that when it's all said and done, the vote will stand in Florida."

Gore made no public comments yesterday on the election. Wearing blue jeans, he accompanied wife Tipper and daughter Karenna to a Washington community center to help pack boxes of Thanksgiving food for the needy.

"I'm glad you're here. Nice job. Thanks for doing this," Gore told fellow volunteers before he left for his residence. He remained out of sight for the rest of the day.

Jim Kuhnhenn's e-mail address is jkuhnhenn

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