Presidential election counts begin again, for now

Another day, another court ruling. At this point in the overtime battle for the White House, who's counting?

Well, Florida is. Again.

Facing a midday Sunday deadline, Florida counties planned to start hand counting ballots Saturday after the state Supreme Court ordered the latest round of counts - this time statewide. Meanwhile, lawyers for Republican George W. Bush scrambled to the U.S. Supreme Court to block the counts.

''I guess it's time to do some counting,'' said Leon County's elections supervisor, Ion Sancho.

Florida's high court, in a 4-3 ruling Friday, ordered that all undervotes must be considered in every county where officials had yet to examine them.

Undervotes are ballots on which no vote for president was registered by machines during the mechanical vote. Punchcard ballots, used in some Florida counties, are particularly susceptible to undervoting because a voter can punch the card but fail to push the chad all the way out.

The judge charged with overseeing the new recounts set a deadline of 2 p.m. Sunday to wrap up the work.

Lawyers for Bush asked the U.S. Supreme Court late Friday for a temporary delay in implementing the Florida court's ruling. The appeal argued that the ruling was unconstitutional and said the electoral process could suffer ''material harm'' if the recounts go forward.

''This is what happens when, for the first time in modern history, a candidate resorts to lawsuits to try to overcome the outcome of an election for president,'' said former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, the head of Bush's legal team. ''It is very sad. It is sad for Florida. It is sad for the nation. And it is sad for democracy.''

The high court ruling trimmed Bush's certified 537-vote lead to less than 200 votes by ordering that the earlier tallies in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade be added to the totals of each candidate.

The opinion overturned a ruling Wednesday by Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls. Sauls immediately recused himself from the case without explanation and it was reassigned to Judge Terry Lewis. Lewis told lawyers for the two campaigns in Tallahassee that he had read the state court's ruling ''and I intend to follow it.''

Gore's lawyers called for the counting to begin immediately and asked the court to establish a procedure to count undervotes statewide, while Bush's lawyers suggested a slower approach. The judge declined to set a single standard to determine which votes count, leaving it to local officials.

''Hours make a difference here,'' said Gore lawyer David Boies, saying about 40,000 disputed ballots had to be counted. ''Minutes may make a difference.''

''It's going to be a big job,'' said Bush attorney Phil Beck, projecting that 64,000 ballots needed to be counted. ''I think the Supreme Court has created an impossible situation here.''

Gore's lawyers also planned to file a response to Bush's request to the U.S. Supreme Court. They said a delay ''is the only means of protecting the integrity of the federal electoral process while ensuring proper and orderly access to the judicial system.''

Justice Anthony Kennedy has jurisdiction over emergency requests from Florida, and will be the first to review the 41-page filing. Kennedy could act on it at any time, or he could refer the request to the full court.

Bush lawyers also were filing an emergency petition with the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta asking that the recounts be stopped - before they could begin - until the nation's highest court could settle the issue.

Gore campaign chairman Bill Daley said the Florida Supreme Court decision caught himself by surprise, but the vice president remained optimistic.

''He believes when this is finished he will be sworn in on January 20th as our president,'' Daley said.

Florida is required to certify its slate of 25 electors Tuesday and the Republican-controlled Legislature is poised to ensure that those electors are pledged to Bush when lawmakers meet in special session next week.

Congress might ultimately be forced to decide whether to accept votes chosen through the court battle in Gore's favor, or a slate picked by the Legislature for Bush.

The Electoral College compiles the votes of all 50 states on Dec. 18 and those votes are to be counted by Congress on Jan. 6, two weeks before Inauguration Day.


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