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U.S.: Two Sides Battle Over How To Recount Presidential Vote

The campaign of Democrat Al Gore has continued to press its case for a manual recount of ballots in Florida, hoping it will show he has won enough votes to gain the U.S. presidency. Republican George W. Bush has challenged the recount process as arbitrary and flawed. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon reports on the legal complications developing a week after the presidential elections were held.

New York, 14 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The contest for president of the United States has spread to the courts with the two main candidates arguing over how extensive a recount of votes should be in the pivotal state of Florida.

A U.S. federal judge in Florida yesterday (Monday) denied the request of Republican candidate George W. Bush to stop a manual recount of some Florida ballots. Bush's attorneys had claimed that the role of biased election officials in interpreting how votes are cast in some cases amounts to an infringement of the rights of citizens who voted for Bush.

Attorneys for Democratic candidate Al Gore argued successfully that the actions of local elections officials in this instance was not a matter of federal constitutional law.

At latest unofficial count, Bush led Gore in the Florida vote by only a few hundred votes. Nationwide, Gore holds a lead in the popular vote and in the electoral vote, but both candidates need the 25 electoral votes of Florida to win the presidency.

Democratic Party officials have said that a thorough recounting of votes by hand in four heavily Democratic counties of Florida could result in a Gore victory by uncovering and correcting mistakes in the machine-counting process. To this point in the recount process, Gore has steadily gained votes.

The Bush campaign, meanwhile, prefers to have votes counted by machine, a process that is likely to confirm Bush's narrow lead in the state.

An attorney for Bush, Theodore Olson, told reporters yesterday that Republican officials remain concerned about manual recounts. He said the Bush campaign will likely appeal to a higher court to stop further manual recounting of ballots.

"Counts by machinery and counts by other processes are more fair, reliable, predictable and uniform. A machine does not care who wins the election. Human beings do."

Legal appeals on the issue by the Bush campaign could ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, manual recounts continue in four Florida counties. But a ruling by Florida's top elections official, Secretary of State Katherine Harris, has imposed a deadline of 2300 (Prague time) today (Tuesday) for results of last Tuesday's (Nov. 7) balloting. Harris, who is a Republican, said the deadline was fixed by state law.

Reacting to Harris' action, the Gore campaign late yesterday said it was joining a lawsuit by one of the counties that seeks to extend the manual recount until all votes are tabulated and made official. The Gore campaign's top attorney, former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, said he was concerned that political bias influenced Harris' decision.

"Her plan, I'm afraid, has the look of an effort to produce a particular result in the election rather than to ensure that the voice of all the citizens in the state will be heard. It also looks like a move in the direction of partisan politics and away from a non-partisan administration of the election laws."

Christopher said a full and fair recounting of the votes was in the interest of both Republicans and Democrats and would ensure the will of voters was properly reflected.

Legal experts do not believe federal courts at any level will forbid the manual recount. But there is uncertainty among them about the challenge to the state deadline in the Florida state courts.

Richard Briffault is a professor at Columbia University law school in New York City and an expert on election law. He told our correspondent that it's unclear to what extent a Florida court will challenge Secretary of State Harris to justify her decision on the recount deadline.

Briffault says the legal action could end up in a trial which compares the accuracy of machine counting versus hand counting.

"The real question would be: Will the state court say this is just a matter of an administrative decision and we defer to the administrator, or does the state court want to have a full-fledged hearing or maybe even a trial on the question of the relative accuracy of the two counts, and in the meantime let the recount go forward?"

Democratic Party officials say a manual recount in the four Florida counties -- where hundreds of thousands of votes must be reviewed -- can be completed within one week. State officials also need to count several thousand absentee ballots by the end of the day Friday (Nov 17).

But legal challenges, either at the state or federal level, could delay a final decision on Florida's vote count -- and thus the U.S. presidency -- for several weeks. There is also the possibility that the Bush campaign will ask for recounts in at least four states where Gore won by narrow margins.

Such delays have prompted constitutional scholars to describe a number of negative scenarios in which the transition to power in the White House is disrupted. For now, opinion polls in the United States show a slight majority of citizens want to see Florida's votes recounted for a second time. But the polls also show that Americans do not want to see the process drag on much longer.