GOP Ratchets Up Recount Rhetoric

Members of George W. Bush’s campaign made serious accusations against the Democratic Party today, charging that backers of Al Gore have orchestrated a statewide effort in Florida to disallow overseas ballots from members of the military, and saying the hand count under way in two counties is now irreparably flawed.

The charges came even though a final tally of overseas absentee ballots has increased Bush’s lead over Gore to 930 votes. The numbers have been released by the Florida Secretary of State’s office, but have not been certified.

At a press conference in Austin, Texas, this afternoon, Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes and Montana Gov. Marc Racicot claimed they have “convincing evidence” that the manual recount is flawed.

“We now have clear and compelling evidence from eyewitnesses that this manual recount process is fundamentally flawed and is no longer recounting, but is distorting, reinventing and miscounting the true intentions of the voters of Florida,” Hughes said.

They cited several examples of alleged irregularities in Palm Beach and Broward counties, such as the ballots being used as fans, and “Post-It” notes affixed to ballots.

Both Hughes and Racicot chastised the Gore camp for what they called attacks on military ballots that were disqualified.

“No one who aspires to be commander in chief should throw out the votes of the men and women he seeks to command,” Hughes said.

And Racicot returned with renewed vehemence to the ongoing Bush theme: That machine recounts are the only new tallies that can be trusted.

Court Setback for Bush

On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court delayed certification of the election until at least Monday, when it will hold a hearing on the ongoing hand recounts of ballots in heavily Democratic counties. The high court will decide whether the ballots should be included in the final vote tally for the state — a result that is expected to decide who will be the next president.

Bush’s campaign has opposed the repeated recounts because it says they have no set standards and are vulnerable to human mistakes and partisanship. After Election Night, the Republican Texas governor’s official lead diminished from 1,784 to the 300 votes, the last statewide tally reported to Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris’ office.

But the overseas tally as reported by the Florida Division of Elections has given 1,380 votes to Bush and 750 to the Democrat, Gore, with all 67 counties reporting. That increases Bush’s overall lead to 930 votes.

Harris, a Republican, had intended to certify the election this afternoon after overseas absentee ballots were tabulated. But that will not happen because of the state Supreme Court’s ruling.

Gore, whose campaign had requested manual recounts of ballots in four counties, hailed the court’s ruling.

“The American people want to make certain that every vote counts and that every vote is counted fairly and accurately,” Gore told reporters Friday at the vice president’s residence. “That is why the decision just announced … is so important.”

Bush’s campaign said it was disappointed in the state Supreme Court’s ruling but was confident it would ultimately find that Harris followed the law in her decision.

“The court issued an order that neither side requested. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court’s action is not an order on the merits,” said Bush representative and former Secretary of State James Baker. “We remain confident that, for all the reasons discussed by the trial court in its two opinions, the Supreme Court will find that the [Florida] secretary of state properly exercised her discretion and followed the law.”

In another victory for Gore, a federal court in Atlanta on Friday denied a Republican request for an emergency injunction to halt the hand recounts, ruling elections should be left to the states to decide.

Bush campaign attorneys had challenged the constitutionality of hand recounts — including those submitted before the state’s original Tuesday deadline — arguing they treated citizens in the selected counties differently than those in counties that did not hold recounts.

Baker pointed out that the federal court’s ruling did not prohibit Bush from challenging the recount again.

Legal Battles, and Counts, Go On

Bush’s campaign did have one court victory Friday. A lower circuit court upheld Harris’s decision to reject appeals from Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties to include the results of still-uncompleted hand counts in the final tally. Judge Terry Lewis ruled Harris used proper discretion in rejecting manual recounts in Palm Beach and other counties.

Gore’s campaign will appeal Judge Lewis’ decision on Monday in the state Supreme Court hearing. Lead Gore attorney David Boies said their side would argue certifying election results without considering the results of the recounts “would be improper under Florida law.”

The Florida Supreme Court — which consists of six Democrats and one independent — ruled unanimously Thursday that recounts could continue, but did not specify whether or not they had to be factored into the state’s final tally.

While Friday’s state Supreme Court ruling enjoined Harris from certifying the election “until further notice of this Court,” it also made clear that, in the meantime, the ballot counting should continue. Election workers were recounting ballots by hand in Palm Beach and Broward counties. Volusia County completed its hand recount last week and submitted its new tally by the 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline imposed by the secretary of state.

In Miami-Dade Counting, the canvassing board voted 2-1 Friday to reverse an earlier decision and go forward with a hand count. The recount in Miami-Dade will involve 614 precincts and 654,000 ballots, not including the absentee votes.

“I don’t think working 24 hours a day we can get it done before Thanksgiving,” said Elections Supervisor David Leahy.

County officials said the recount would begin Monday morning.

If the other counts in all other states hold — both Oregon and New Mexico are unofficially in Gore’s column — Florida’s 25 Electoral College votes will decide who will move into the White House. Bush has won states accounting for 246 of the 270 electoral votes required to win the White House, while Gore lays claim to states accounting for 255 votes.