Bush seeks to halt hand count

Gore camp says legal action displays hypocrisy

By Glen Johnson, Globe Staff, 11/12/2000

TALLAHASSEE - After the Bush campaign sought an injunction in federal court yesterday to stop a hand count of Palm Beach County's disputed ballots, the county early this morning ordered a hand recount of all its more than 425,000 ballots.

The hand count of the 4,100 ballot sample turned up a gain of 36 votes for Vice President Al Gore and a loss of 3 votes for Texas Governor George W. Bush, county officials said.

Election officials said they found numerous differences between the hand recount and the machine count, pointing to potentially 1,900 errors county-wide, which is more than the margin between Bush and Gore.

James A. Baker III, representing Bush, said hand counts contain the ''potential for mischief'' and leave election officials trying to ''divine the intent'' of unclear ballots. The Bush injunction also sought to stop three other planned recounts. The Gore campaign labeled the Republican move ''rather surprising'' and hypocritical.

Baker pledged to drop the lawsuit if Gore joined Bush in agreeing to let the election be determined by two counts already completed by ''precision machinery,'' as well as a count of ballots from Floridians living overseas scheduled for Friday.

''Machines are neither Republicans nor Democrats, and therefore can be neither consciously nor unconsciously biased,'' the former secretary of state said at a Florida news conference. ''If this new selective recounting process proceeds, the votes in some counties will be counted in a completely different and standardless manner from votes in the remaining counties.''

Although absentee ballots have not yet been tallied, Bush appears to have won by the initial count and a second unofficial recount, the latter by a spare 327-vote margin. Both he and Gore need Florida's 25 electoral votes to gain the 270-vote Electoral College majority necessary to succeed President Clinton.

The Gore campaign called on Bush to withdraw the lawsuit, but it was dispatching Harvard constitutional law specialist Laurence H. Tribe to Miami to challenge it during a hearing tomorrow. The Bush legal action prompted charges of hypocrisy from top-level Gore campaign officials.

Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state representing Gore, said the filing was ''rather surprising'' considering that Bush signed a Texas law in 1997 giving primacy to hand counts over machine counts in disputed elections.

''If Governor Bush truly believes that he won the election in Florida, he should not have any reason to doubt or to fear to have the machine count checked by a hand count,'' said Christopher. ''Until today, the Bush campaign has argued that every minute counts. We have consistently maintained, however, as we continue to do today, that every vote must count.''

Gore's campaign chairman, William Daley, also directly rebutted Baker's criticism of hand counts, saying, ''I don't think one should assume that in all occasions, a machine is more guaranteed to give you the right result than humans.''

Problems with automated vote-counting equipment, especially the computer punch card type used in southern Florida, have been well documented, said Rebecca Mercuri, a visiting professor of computer science at Bryn Mawr College.

''You will never get the same numbers,'' she said. ''If you run thousands of these cards through again and again, you will continue to get different numbers that are coming up.

Democratic officials pointed out that Republican election officials in Florida's Seminole County, a GOP territory, supported a hand recount of ballots there earlier this week, which led to Bush picking up nearly 100 more votes.

Despite the comments, Christopher hinted that Gore might drop his election challenge after Friday's count.

''We're proceeding down these tracks. We've considered other options. No decisions have been made on them, and we would certainly let you know when they have been made,'' the secretary said.

The squabbling came as both campaigns sought a cushion heading into what could be a decisive vote count Friday. An estimated 2,900 ballots are still expected from Florida voters living overseas. Some of them have already been returned and counted; the remainder are due and will be counted on Friday.

The Bush campaign says most will come from members of the armed forces, which they believe are inclined to support a Republican. The Gore camp expects a heavy vote from Israel, the home of Jewish voters who, it says, would probably support the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Joseph I. Lieberman, the first Jew on a presidential ticket.

The focus on Florida overshadowed the potential for still more recounts in other states. The Bush campaign dispatched representatives to Des Moines to try to assess a possible recount in Iowa, where Gore won by 5,069 votes. Recounts are also under consideration in New Mexico, Wisconsin and Oregon, where absentee and mail-in ballots are still being counted.

Newsweek released a survey showing that by a ratio of 3-1, Americans say it is more important to make sure the vote count in Florida is accurate than to resolve matters as quickly as possible. At the same time, just over half of all surveyed opposed waiting beyond next week's count of overseas ballots.

Bush left all comment about the lawsuit to Baker, but he and running mate Dick Cheney met with reporters at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. He said, ''We don't think there's a need for three elections.'' He added that he and his staff continue planning for a transition even though ''we're all in limbo.''

As his springer spaniel ''Spot'' barked and played nearby, Bush said he hoped the dispute would end Friday. ''It seems like to us that once those ballots are counted, it will be able to determine who the president will be.''

He said the campaign might seek recounts in other states, ''but what will be good for the country is to have this election over with, so that the new administration can do the people's business.''

Bush still wore a bandage on his right cheekbone, which covered an infection being treated with antibiotics.

Gore, meanwhile, stayed out of public view. He met with Daley, Christopher, and Lieberman at the vice president's residence in Washington. Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, walked rather than drove to the site in observance of the Jewish Sabbath.

In Palm Beach, a hand count of about 4,100 ballots from four precincts began about 2 p.m. At about 6:30 p.m., officials changed the criteria for the hand count; instead of holding the ballots up to the light to see where the light shines through, readers will now consider any ballots showing signs of perforation valid.

Tucker Eskew, a Bush spokesperson, said that he was concerned about the change in policy, and that it raises concerns about the process.

The results will be used to determine whether to conduct a complete recount in all precincts. Outside, protesters argued via battery-powered megaphones and reporters peered in through large windows, while inside, election workers counted the ballots.

Elsewhere in Florida, Volusia County officials plan to recount all of their 184,018 ballots today. Broward county election officials plan to do a hand recount of three precincts tomorrow before deciding about a full recount. Officials in Miami-Dade County will discuss a hand recount Tuesday.

That same day, a judge in Palm Beach County will hear a lawsuit challenging the decision by county officials to invalidate 19,210 ballots marked twice, most for both Gore and Reform Party presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan.

In another area, heavily Republican Duval County, election officials disclosed that about 26,000 ballots were disqualified and never counted on Election Day because they were marked for more than one presidential candidate, or none at all.

The Bush campaign filed its 79-page injunction request in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida, based in Miami. The case was assigned to US District Judge Donald Middlebrooks, a Clinton appointee.

Any appeal would go to the Atlanta-based 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Material from Anne E. Kornblut, in Austin, Texas, Yvonne Abraham in West Palm Beach, Fla., all of the Globe Staff, and the Associated Press was used in this report.