Fla. Court Says Butterfly Ballots OK

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 Beach County, rejecting a plea from voters who contested the design of the county’s “butterfly ballot.”

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

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” unless defects in the ballot “clearly operate to prevent a free, fair and open choice,” he said.

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

The vice president’s lawyers came up empty on two other rulings handed down today that spurned his bid to force an immediate manual recount of 14,000 contested ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

In an emergency hearing, Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls refused for the third time in less than a week to order a manual recount of disputed ballots, at least until he hears arguments beginning Saturday.

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,” said Sauls, setting the stage for a historic weekend trial on Gore’s contest.

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

Ironically, it was complaints about the design of the butterfly ballot in Palm Beach County that Gore’s aides first cited more than three weeks ago when the election controversy flared. Democrats said that because of a confusing design, some voters who intended to cast ballots for Gore wound up inadvertently voting for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. That point of contention slowly receded into the background, however, so much so that Gore did not include it in his formal election challenge.

Bush was certified the winner of Florida by 537 votes last Sunday by Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Gore swiftly filed legal papers challenging her edict, and the case was assigned to Sauls.

Need for Speed

While the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington heard arguments on weighty constitutional issues, Sauls grappled with more mundane legal questions — subpoenas for documents, motions by outside parties to intervene — and made clear he hopes the trial can be wrapped up in a single day.

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

They reacted in particular to a Republican proposed witness list of more than 90 people including the governors of New York and New Jersey 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 1.2 million ballots in Volusia, Broward and Pinellas counties. The Bush campaign had asked that they be brought to Tallahassee, but agreed that the impounding would suffice. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan said, “We believe there were a number of illegal votes for Gore in those counties.”

While legal motions were under way today, a truck convoy carried more than a half million ballots from Miami-Dade County to Tallahassee. Whether Sauls would allow a recount of those ballots and another batch delivered by Palm Beach County was still in dispute.

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

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

A similar incident in Seminole County also resulted in a Democratic lawsuit, which contends election officials violated a state law that says only the voter, an immediate family member or a guardian can fill out an absentee ballot application. That suit seeks 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 Sauls saying Gore’s lawyers filed their challenge after the 10-day deadline required by state law. The Republicans also claimed Gore’s challenge was baseless because the real election wasn’t between the Texas governor and the vice president but between the separate groups of 25 Florida electors.