Positions harden on vote count

As the Florida deadline looms, political and legal conflicts escalate to new levels.

The legal and political tempest that has raged in Florida for the past two weeks may yet explode into a full-force hurricane.

Worse, it appears likely the gale will last awhile - not only in naming the next president, but also in terms of the damage being sustained to national unity and reconciliation.

While Tuesday's ruling by the Florida Supreme Court sets the stage for possible certification of the state's vote as early as Sunday, such a step wouldn't necessarily mean the battle for president is over. Even if Al Gore is announced the winner of Florida's pivotal 25 electoral votes - a scenario that the Democrat-leaning court has made more likely - legal and political maneuvering could further delay any resolution of the thorniest election outcome in US history.

When results are announced, there are a number of avenues the losing candidate or his supporters could take. First could come a challenge to the results in state court in Tallahassee. Both the candidate and Florida taxpayers are entitled to file challenge suits.

If George W. Bush is the challenger, a suit would most likely attack the inclusion of "dimpled" ballots from three Democratic strongholds in Florida to turn the tide of the election.

This approach, though, may prove unsatisfying to Republicans. Even if Bush lawyers prevail in state court, they would eventually find themselves back in the Florida Supreme Court, which would likely take the opportunity to explicitly endorse the counting of dimpled ballots as a more accurate expression of the "will of the people," even if the standard is not uniformly applied to every ballot cast in Florida's presidential election.

Republicans may argue, as a fallback position, that only if a ballot shows a pattern of dimpled voting throughout, should it be counted as a valid vote.

The issue of hand recounts is crucial to the Gore camp because it offers the vice president his best opportunity to find enough votes to overcome Mr. Bush's 930-vote lead after the machine ballot recount and receipt of overseas absentee ballots.

Bush, for his part, may find greater hope by looking to the federal courts. There, his team could renew its attack on the hand-recount procedure as a violation of the due-process and equal-protection guarantees in the US Constitution. Giving special attention to votes cast in Democratic counties, Bush lawyers could argue, dilutes similar votes cast in Florida's other counties.

So far, federal judges in Miami and Orlando have refused to block the ongoing hand recounts, and the full 12-judge federal appeals court in Atlanta has also declined to stop them.

But the federal appeals court hasn't thrown out the case entirely, and it may offer the Bush camp its best opportunity to once again argue the constitutional issue. Whether the issue rises to the US Supreme Court is unclear.

The Bush team would likely raise questions about the fairness of Florida's highest court endorsing a special effort to identify Gore votes in three pro-Gore counties, while shutting the door to the same kind of special effort to identify Bush votes in pro-Bush counties.

Indeed, the Florida high court, in its unanimous decision, made clear it wouldn't give Bush an opportunity to do what Mr. Gore has done: identify friendly uncounted votes in areas of the state that heavily favored him. The court said in a bottom-of-the-page note that it had offered during oral argument to reopen the deadline to conduct hand recounts in other counties, but neither of the candidates expressed interest in a statewide hand recount.

In effect, the justices told the Republican candidate: Too bad, you had your chance.

A third venue for a challenge would be for Florida's GOP-controlled legislature to become involved in the legal wrangling. It could file suit in US court, arguing Florida's seven justices overstepped their authority. Such a move, in fact, is being discussed by GOP lawmakers in Tallahassee.

Another way state lawmakers could get involved would be to pick their own slate of electors to the Electoral College. They have the right to do so, under federal law, if the normal process of selection reaches an impasse.

In a broad sense, the battle for Florida's 25 electoral votes came down to whether the state's high court would accept a machine count of votes, as favored by Bush, or a combination of machine-count votes and a hand recount, as favored by Gore.

"Our society has not yet gone so far as to place blind faith in machines," the justices wrote. "In almost all endeavors, including elections, humans routinely correct the errors of machines."

Bush supporters have consistently attacked the hand-recount process as unreliable and open to "mischief." They say their candidate won Florida in the first machine count of ballots on election night, and won it a second time in the machine recount.

If the court's decision to include the hand recounts provides Gore with a clearer road to the White House, it remains unclear whether he'll eventually get there.

His vote margin depends in large measure on the number of "dimpled" ballots included in the final tally. The court's order leaves local election boards in charge of that key decision - and those boards are controlled by Democrats. All three counties have opted to include them. But one, Palm Beach County, was in court under Democratic pressure to count even more of them.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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