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Counting, uncertainty stick around


A GOP activist uses the design of Gore-Lieberman signs to make a statement.


TALLAHASSEE - After a dizzying day of court decisions, Florida's contentious presidential election was put on hold in a series of rulings that gave hope to the Gore camp even as it was losing the overseas absentee ballot count.

The state Supreme Court and a federal appeals court in Atlanta denied requests by the Bush campaign to stop the hand recounts in south Florida, removing a state deadline today for certifying the winner.

The actions put the contest in limbo for two more days in an election now in its 12th day.

The unanimous Florida Supreme Court ruling sets the stage for a hearing on Monday at 2 p.m. in what could be a critical decision in the fight for the White House.

As supporters for Vice President Gore hailed the rulings, Bush campaign officials were celebrating the return of overseas absentee ballots that so far favor the Texas governor. The ballots were to be counted by midnight last night.

“This is not over yet. It may be just beginning,” said Tucker Eskew, a Bush camp spokesman.

With 65 of the 67 counties' overseas ballots counted early today, Mr. Bush's statewide lead was 760 votes, up from 300 when the day started.

The Bush camp was hoping yesterday it would get relief from the federal appeals court to end the race today, but the court denied its request to stop the hand recounting of ballots in Broward and Palm Beach counties two hours after the Florida Supreme Court acted.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that states like Florida have great latitude in settling election disputes.

Both decisions were made just hours after a dramatic, much-awaited lower court ruling here that could have ended the election today, even as the two south Florida counties were hand counting their votes.

Leon County Judge Terry Lewis decided that state Secretary of State Katherine Harris acted lawfully three days ago when she decided not to accept the new vote returns from counties now doing hand counts.

The Gore camp, which has been pushing for the counts, promptly appealed the decision to the high court in one of many legal battles being waged across the state.

The Supreme Court's action stops Ms. Harris from declaring a sure winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes today - and by extension, the presidency.

In the ruling yesterday afternoon - a surprise to many protesters in south Florida - the seven high court justices said they wanted to “maintain the status quo until further order of this court.”

Shortly after the decision, Mr. Gore said the ban imposed on Ms. Harris, a Republican who was state co-chair of the Bush campaign, will help lead to a “fair and accurate” recount.

The developments yesterday - court rulings, contested hand counting, and overseas balloting - were typical of the events that have taken place in a state that will forever be remembered for its spoiler status.

On a day when many people in this quaint, capital town of moss-draped hickory trees and Civil War statues normally would have been talking about the college football game of the year - Florida versus Florida State, to be played tonight - the talk was about the election. And who was going to win.

Much will depend on the next few days.

Florida officials will know today who has won the battle over the overseas absentee ballots, numbering 2,900, that could be crucial to the outcome. But even then, it won't be over.

After days of delays, not only are hand recounts under way in two heavily Democratic areas - Palm Beach and Broward counties - but last night election officials in Miami-Dade County voted to begin a manual recount of ballots there.

So far, Mr. Gore has picked up a net of 44 votes over Mr. Bush in the two counties. But several days of counting remain.

Inspectors in the two counties will be inspecting 1 million ballots - one out of every six cast in the state.

“So much can happen between now and next week; it's way too early to call,” said Dr. Timothy Lenz, a political science professor at Florida Atlantic University who has been studying the election.

The recent developments bring more turmoil to the election. But several political observers say it may be winding down by next week.

“I can seen light at the end of the tunnel,” said Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Foley of Palm Beach County, who showed up at the recount center in suburban West Palm Beach. “I truly believe we're going to have some answers here real soon. It's not long.”

Though the big court decisions were made in the state capital, Palm Beach County continued to be the nerve center of the state's election process.

Hand recounts began there in a rush two days ago when Florida's Supreme Court ruled the recounts in south Florida could continue. The counts began in neighboring Broward County on Wednesday.

“This is to make sure peoples' votes counted,” Democratic County Commissioner Burt Aaronson said outside the modern, brick recount center yesterday. “It's critical we do this.”

Less than 100 feet away, Republican County Commissioner Mary McCarty was holding her own press briefing to declare the hand counts moot.

“What we're doing is shopping for more votes. We need to bring closure to this process for both sides,” she said, adding that the recount was costing Palm Beach County $250,000. “How many recounts are we going to have?”

Critics say the punch-card ballot used in Florida is not very efficient, and that thousands of votes are lost because the machines do not always pick up the holes that are punched.

Inside the chilly amphitheater recount room - the county's emergency command center for disasters - officials continued to inspect ballots under the glare of cameras and a curious press corps.

As was the case during a recount last weekend, the mood shifted to tense and then relaxed, depending on the latest news breaking outside.

Shortly after the first court ruling yesterday favoring the Bush camp, the mood appeared to relax as the inspectors sifted through the endless stacks of punch card ballots.

As the day wore on with the other court decisions, tensions rose. Bickering broke out between the Bush and Gore observers over the way officials were handling the ballots.

That prompted Judge Charles Burton, head of the once obscure local election board, to warn the Bush observers. “All you have to say is the word `protest,'” he said angrily. “Otherwise, you're outta here.”

Concern was voiced over the “chads,” or those pieces of paper that have become a part of the American vocabulary and late-night talk show jokes. GOP officials were concerned the counters were shaking the chads loose from the ballots, which could mean the difference in a precious vote.

If a hole in the ballot is punched through, it's a vote. But if the chad is hanging by two or more corners, it's not.

Other issues came up yesterday when Theresa LePore, the embattled Democratic Palm Beach County elections chief, reminded inspectors to not talk or even make facial expressions.

“I want to remind you that you're supposed to be neutral,” she said.

Palm Beach County is still the center of a controversy that may forever cloud the outcome of the election of 2000.

This is where complaints were made on the morning of the election that first drew the nation's attention. And after days of protests and lawsuits and recounts, troubling questions about the local ballot persist.

Thousands of voters have signed a petition to complain that the lay-out of the ballot - now known as “The Palm Beach Ballot” - was confusing. And they are asking for a revote.

They complained that they mistakenly cast their ballots for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan instead of Mr. Gore because of the alignment of holes down the center of the page and names on each side. In the process, the Vice President may have lost hundreds of votes, say local Democrats.

A study released two days ago by a Florida Atlantic University professor shows that Mr. Buchanan, who drew 3,400 votes in the Palm Beach County, received his highest vote totals in precincts dominated by 70 per cent or more Democrats. The results “statistically prove that people were confused,” said Dr. David Niven.

“There is no way a conservative like Pat Buchanan is going to get his most votes from Democratic wards. That doesn't even follow the national patterns.” Neighboring Miami-Dade and Broward counties tallied a combined 1,000 votes for Mr. Buchanan, even though each county has more registered voters than Palm Beach County.

“This will be long over someday, but people will still be talking about this,” Dr. Niven said.

Based on county vote results, the study concluded Mr. Gore lost at least 1,600 votes in the apparent confusion.

Marty McCarty, the GOP county commissioner who headed the local Bush campaign, says the numbers are not proven. “I find it hard to believe that thousands of people suddenly think they voted for Buchanan,” she said.

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