On a topsy-turvy day of law and politics, the Florida Supreme Court froze the state's presidential tally on Friday, forbidding the secretary of state from certifying results of the marathon vote count just as Republican George W. Bush was advancing his minuscule lead over Al Gore.
With the presidential race in the balance, a federal appeals court refused to block recounts under way in two heavily Democratic counties while a third county Miami-Dade, the state's largest reversed field and announced it too would begin a recount.
The dual rulings were a major blow to Bush, his hopes of a quick certification dashed as Gore's recount campaign grinds away.
The count of absentee votes from overseas was the final installment in Florida's routine vote-counting process. With returns from 65 of 67 counties, Bush picked up 1,057 votes and Gore 597, giving the Republican a 760-vote statewide lead up from 300 when the day began.
Cries of foul came from both camps as the overseas ballots were counted. More than a thousand votes were thrown out as officials from both parties analyzed registrations, postmarks and other details.
"One of the problems with those ballots is it is so difficult under Florida and federal law that you almost have to be a rocket scientist to comply," said Thomas Spencer, a Miami attorney working for Bush.
In separate manual recount activities the subject of frantic court activity Gore picked up a a net of 48 votes in Broward County while Bush picked up a net of four votes in the closely watched tally in Palm Beach County. All this out of six million votes cast across the state.
The winner of Florida's 25 electoral votes will win the White House. In New Mexico, late tallies gave the state and its 5 electoral votes to Gore. He holds a 200,155 vote lead out of the 103 million ballots cast nationwide, and a slender lead in the electoral votes.
Highs and lows
On a day pitted with emotional highs and lows for both campaigns, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta rejected Bush's request to halt the recounts, returning the matter to Florida courts.
As aides watched glumly from Texas, Bush adviser James A. Baker III said neither court has yet to address the core of the Bush's case that hand counts from selected counties are unfair and expose the election to mistakes and political mischief. "We remain confident ... the supreme court will find the secretary of state properly exercised her discretion" in barring manual recounts, he said.
Republican operatives were in each of Florida's 67 counties in case a statewide manual recount was ordered either by the courts or as a last resort by Bush himself.
Bush aides had been working behind the scenes to set up a "victory" statement today, followed by a news conference Sunday plans that were put on hold by the court setbacks.
"As we say around the office, the worm turns," said Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani. "And now the worm is getting dizzy."
Florida's high court stopped Secretary of State Katherine Harris from certifying the results of the state's election today at the end of absentee balloting. She planned instead to release an updated count without comment.
The one-paragraph supreme court ruling blunted a morning order from a trial court judge who upheld Harris' right to seal the results.
In its unanimous order, the high court said they wanted to "maintain the status quo" while lawyers made their challenges in the state that will settle the race for the presidency. Harris was told not to act "until further order."
In its order denying Bush's request to halt the county recounts, the circuit court in Atlanta said, "States have the primary authority to determine the manner of appointing presidential electors and to resolve most controversies concerning the appointment of electors."
'More attorneys than ballots'
There was no end to the wrangling.
"There are more attorneys than there are ballots," said Bob Edwards, chairman of the Republican Executive Committee for Walton County, where five absentee votes were tossed out, including those of four people who had already voted. In Orange County, officials discarded 117 of 147 votes received.
Democrats protested a number of ballots, saying they were not postmarked as required. A GOP official said Republicans might challenge the discarding of hundreds of ballots, many from military personnel.
Gore's presidential dreams rested with the courts and in the ballot-counting rooms of Palm Beach and Broward counties, and now Miami-Dade. Local Democratic allies lobbied county board members to reverse course and approve the recounts in Broward and Palm Beach counties.
"I want to be clear neither Governor Bush, nor the Florida secretary of state, nor I will be the arbiter of this election," Gore said shortly after the high court ruling. "This election is a matter that must be decided by the will of the people as expressed under the rule of law."
The seven high court justices set a 1 p.m. Monday hearing to consider the validity of ongoing recounts in several counties. The timetable effectively permits manual recounts to continue in the three Democratic-leaning jurisdictions where about 1.5 million ballots of the states 6 million ballots were cast.
It was another day of tumult and tension for the candidates and their weary workers: a trial court ruling, high-fives in Bush's camp; a high court ruling, cheers from Gore's camp; absentee ballots counted, Election Day ballots recounted; a new controversy regarding missing postmarks and a federal court ruling.
The deep partisan divide, certain to shadow the winner to the White House, was evident in the political makeup of Friday's key players: Harris is a Republican who campaigned for Bush, and all seven state Supreme Court justices are appointees of Democratic governors.
"It's very bitter and highly partisan, and it's really a tragedy," said former President Carter, a Democrat who has overseen numerous elections in fledging democracies since leaving the White House.
Another former president seemed equally philosophical.
"There is a lesson in this and I would simply say that I think this country is totally resilient, totally strong," said George Bush, father of the GOP candidate. "Leaving out who wins or loses, this country will be just fine."
Harris certified the bulk of Florida's votes Tuesday, showing Bush with an agonizingly narrow 300-vote lead. That total did not include some 2,500 overseas absentee ballots, which had to be delivered to counties by midnight Friday and their totals reported to Harris by noon today.
Bush was in Texas, the vice president in Washington as they and their aides rode an emotional rollercoaster.
Midway through the day, with a favorable lower court ruling in their pocket, the Bush team mulled whether to declare an outright victory today, something it hasn't been shy about asserting it deserved with every legal or political twist since Election Day.
"We now look forward to the prompt counting and reporting of the limited number of uncounted overseas absentee ballots so that the process of achieving a final result to the election in Florida is not subject to further delays," said Baker III, hours before the high court ruling.
Gore's team was on the defensive then, with top Gore lawyer Warren Christopher issuing "the plea that I have:" Don't declare the race over yet.
"We don't want to have it come to an end with a rush for judgment that would leave many questions out there," Christopher said.
Meeting in Wesley Chapel, Fla., GOP governors offered a standing ovation when they heard of the decision.
Gore advisers held out hope that the election spectacle could take yet another unpredictable turn in the vice president's favor. It did. Pennsylvania's Tom Ridge said the room darkened when GOP governors got the news. "They feel a sense of helplessness," said Ridge. "I want to be hopeful, I want to be optimistic."
Advisers said that, with the favorable turn of events, Gore was not considering conceding to Bush.
They say he is aware, however, that the public's patience can run out without little warning. Some advisers, though still eager to fight Bush, have told Gore he would be a front-runner in 2004 if he is bows out gracefully.
Not counting Florida, Gore won 20 states plus the District of Columbia for 267 electoral votes three shy of the number needed to win the White House. Bush won 29 states for 246 electoral votes, and Florida would put him just over the top.