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Courts face task of sorting issues

Legal cases will be argued today in Palm Beach Circuit Court that may decide whether election officials can legally conduct a hand count of all the ballots cast by the county's voters - 462,657.

Supporters of Vice President Gore are hoping there will be enough votes in the county to win the state, and the presidency.

Though the count starts today - with officials vowing to carry out the task - the move is expected to be challenged by the state's top election official, Kathleen Harris, who said it will take too long. She wants the ballots by today at 5 p.m.

Both sides are bracing for a showdown that may lead to a constitutional crisis by the end of the week, legal experts said.

“Ultimately, this has to be decided in the courts, because it's gone too far,” said Steven Meyers, a lawyer for the Palm Beach County Democratic Party.

A similar case will be heard by Volusia County officials who are asking a state judge in Tallahassee - with support from the Gore campaign - to grant them an extension so they can finish a hand count that began on Sunday. Other counts are taking place in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Mr. Gore leads in the national popular vote by almost 200,000 votes, but the Electoral College tally is so tight that whoever takes Florida will win the White House. Texas Gov. George Bush has a 388-vote edge in the Sunshine State.

For the first time this century, the office of the presidency has been relegated to the legal arena.

The day began when Palm Beach County election officials announced their plan: a total of 50 people - two to each team - inspecting all ballots and working 14-hour shifts. The count will be done by Sunday.

A hand count of 4,600 votes three days ago showed enough discrepancies to warrant the entire count, officials decided in a 2-1 vote.

Though Bush supporters filed a lawsuit in federal court in Miami to stop the process, Democratic Judge Donald Middlebrooks ruled yesterday - as Palm Beach County officials were announcing their plan - that the question of halting recounts is not a matter for the federal courts and belongs in state court.

That's when the real drama began.

In a flurry of faxes and letters, Ms. Harris, the state's top election official and a Bush supporter, ruled that state law requires that she certify the votes by today - a full week after the election.

Though Palm Beach County election officials objected to the opinion, Ms. Harris said she must abide by the law or disregard the votes.

As news of the legal battle filtered over the airwaves, hundreds of people converged on the downtown streets here, waving signs and chanting.

Large groups of Bush supporters carried posters in front of Government Center, saying “Sore Losers,” and “Accept it: Bush Won.” At the same time, Gore supporters marched around the center, waving “Revote” signs.

As civil-rights activist Jesse Jackson arrived with a contingent of Rainbow Coalition supporters, another legal twist was unfolding in the courthouse across the street.

After a brief hearing, Judge Stephen Rapp agreed to step down from hearing the cases of six voters because the judge was accused of criticizing their complaints during a hearing on an unrelated case.

The voters are asking for a new county election because they claim they were so confused by the layout of the ballot that they voted for third-party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Mr. Gore.

Witnesses said they heard the judge say the county ballot - the subject of national debate - was not confusing and that the people should not have voted if they could not read the directions. In another instance, they said the judge remarked he voted Republican to get “rid of the Democrats in the White House,” documents stated.

Though the judged denied the claims, he recused himself.

Taking his place will be Judge Catherine Brunson, who will hold an emergency hearing today at 1 p.m. on requests that election officials not send the ballots to the state for certification but allow local officials to finish the hand count that begins at 7 a.m. today.

By the time the hearing ended yesterday, more than 5,000 people were gathered in a near downtown amphitheater for a rally.

Several speakers, including Jesse Jackson, implored the crowd to keep lobbying for another election in Palm Beach County - a move that many experts say may not be possible under state law.

“This is a crisis that's not about politics. It's about democracy,” he said. “Your votes count.”

More than 500 Bush supporters, perhaps their largest turnout, took to the streets to denounce the rally with signs, “Jesse Go Home.”

Carrying a 15-foot-tall wooden cross, Harry Morrison, 40, said he is tired of the local support for another election.

“I read the ballot. I read the directions. And I voted. Why can't we just let it rest,” he said.

Several Bush supporters blamed the media and local Democratic leaders for stirring the crowds.

“If it wasn't for the press, we wouldn't be having these discussions right now,” said Ed Roxy, a downtown merchant who voted for Mr. Bush.

During yesterday's election board meeting, two U.S. congressmen from South Florida, Republican Clay Shaw and Democrat Robert Wexler, held press conferences in the courtyard of Government Center.

Mr. Wexler said the move to conduct a hand count “was about allowing someone a chance to let their votes be heard. Our sacred right to vote. Does anyone remember what that means?”

Mr. Shaw said it was a ploy by the Democratic-controlled election board to garner more votes for Mr. Gore in the razor-edge race.

“The election is supposed to be over,” he said. “How long are we going to have recounts? Until someone else wins?”

For the first time, Mr. Gore even commented on the debate, saying that more is at stake than winning the presidency.

“What's at stake is our democracy; making sure the will of the American people is expressed and accurately received,” he said outside the White House.”

The Gore campaign has claimed the county's ballot layout was illegal and confusing and cost the candidate thousands of votes.

“I've talked to dozens of people who are mortified that they voted for Pat Buchanan,” said Ben Kuehne. Mr. Buchanan captured more than 3,000 votes in the county, with hundreds of votes in Democratic strongholds.

Bush campaign spokesman Tucker Askew said he was disappointed in the local election board's decision to move ahead with the human count, which will take place at the county's modern emergency command center in West Palm Beach.

He and others were angry that election board member Carol Roberts, the main advocate for the hand count, admitted under questioning during yesterday's meeting that she drove a car with a Gore sticker and that she went to a fund-raiser this year for Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman.

“She should step down now from the board,” Mr. Askew said.

Mrs. Roberts said she would “never let politics compromise my responsibilities” as an election board member. “This is about people whose votes never counted,” she said. “I'm not going to turn my back on them.”

Yet to be counted are about 7,000 ballots from state residents overseas, many of whom are in the military. Those must be counted by Friday.

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