Fla. Court Says Butterfly Ballots OK

ByLinda Deutsch

T A L L A H A S S E E, Fla., Dec. 1, 2000 -- The Florida Supreme Court has unanimously refused to order a new election in Palm BeachCounty, rejecting a plea from voters who contested the design ofthe county’s “butterfly ballot.”

In addition, the state’s highest court and a statecourt judge today dealt Al Gore’s lawyers a double defeat in theirbid to force an immediate hand recount of thousands of disputedballots.

No New Election

Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters summarized the court’s ruling on the Palm Beach County ballots from the courthouse steps.

“Courts have generally declined to void an election” unlessdefects in the ballot “clearly operate to prevent a free, fair andopen choice,” he said.

Gore, who has filed an unprecedented legal challenge to GeorgeW. Bush’s certified 537-vote victory in Florida, was not formallyinvolved in the butterfly ballot case, although an order for a newvote would have thrown the contested election into turmoil.

The vice president’s lawyers came up empty on two other rulingshanded down today that spurned his bid to force an immediatemanual recount of 14,000 contested ballots in Miami-Dade and PalmBeach counties.

In an emergency hearing, Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls refusedfor the third time in less than a week to order a manual recount ofdisputed ballots, at least until he hears arguments beginningSaturday.

The Florida Supreme Court, which was implored to intervene,refused without comment. Waters said merely that the petition was“dismissed without prejudice,” meaning it could be filed again.

“There can be no ruling until there is evidence taken,” saidSauls, setting the stage for a historic weekend trial on Gore’scontest.

Gore’s lead attorney David Boies said, “On one hand we’redisappointed the Supreme Court didn’t take this up immediately. Onthe other hand we understand it would have been a very unusualstep.”

Ironically, it was complaints about the design of the butterflyballot in Palm Beach County that Gore’s aides first cited more thanthree weeks ago when the election controversy flared. Democratssaid that because of a confusing design, some voters who intendedto cast ballots for Gore wound up inadvertently voting for ReformParty candidate Pat Buchanan. That point of contention slowlyreceded into the background, however, so much so that Gore did notinclude it in his formal election challenge.

Bush was certified the winner of Florida by 537 votes lastSunday by Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Gore swiftly filedlegal papers challenging her edict, and the case was assigned toSauls.

Need for Speed

While the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington heard arguments onweighty constitutional issues, Sauls grappled with more mundanelegal questions — subpoenas for documents, motions by outsideparties to intervene — and made clear he hopes the trial can bewrapped up in a single day.

The Democrats contend, among other things, that Bush’s attorneysare “threatening to make a mockery” of the proceedings beforeSauls in Gore’s lawsuit contesting the Florida outcome.

They reacted in particular to a Republican proposed witness listof more than 90 people including the governors of New York and NewJersey and former presidential candidate Bob Dole.

The Democrats noted they planned to call only two witnesses.

Sauls said each side can call only one expert witness.

More Ballots, Legal Action

The judge also ordered the impounding of an additional 1.2million ballots in Volusia, Broward and Pinellas counties. The Bushcampaign had asked that they be brought to Tallahassee, but agreedthat the impounding would suffice. Bush spokesman Scott McClellansaid, “We believe there were a number of illegal votes for Gore inthose counties.”

While legal motions were under way today, a truck convoycarried more than a half million ballots from Miami-Dade County toTallahassee. Whether Sauls would allow a recount of those ballotsand another batch delivered by Palm Beach County was still indispute.

With at least 42 election suits pending statewide, morelitigation sprouted by the hour. Among the issues added to the mix:

Democrats sued the Martin County canvassing board asking tothrow out all the county’s 9,773 absentee ballots becauseRepublicans were allowed to add voter identification numbers toballot applications. A hearing was scheduled. Bush received 6,294absentee votes in the county, compared with 3,479 for Gore, or adifference of 2,815 votes.

A similar incident in Seminole County also resulted in aDemocratic lawsuit, which contends election officials violated astate law that says only the voter, an immediate family member or aguardian can fill out an absentee ballot application. That suitseeks to throw out all 15,000 absentee ballots cast in the county.A trial is scheduled for next week.

The Republicans sought dismissal of the lawsuit before Saulssaying Gore’s lawyers filed their challenge after the 10-daydeadline required by state law. The Republicans also claimed Gore’schallenge was baseless because the real election wasn’t between theTexas governor and the vice president but between the separategroups of 25 Florida electors.

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