Bush fails to block new Florida recount

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The Independent US

Chaos threatened to engulf America's disputed presidential election as a hand recount of votes in a Florida count began yesterday.

Chaos threatened to engulf America's disputed presidential election as a hand recount of votes in a Florida count began yesterday.

The check of ballot papers came despite Republican efforts to obtain a court order to stop a process that could hand the state's 25 electoral votes - and the White House - to Vice-President Al Gore.

The partial recount in Palm Beach County, involving 4,500 ballots in three precincts and expected to last up to 12 hours, was the first of four similar exercises, all in strongly Democratic counties.

Earlier, James Baker, the former secretary of state who heads George W Bush's team in Florida, said he was asking for the injunction to "preserve the integrity of the democratic process". A manual recount was less accurate than the previous machine counts and had a "far greater potential for mischief", he said. Machines "are neither Republicans nor Democrats".

But the Republican move seemed to have no immediate consequence. "They filed a petition," said Charles Burton, the head of the Palm County canvassing board. "But there is no injunction to my knowledge."

Democratic spokesmen also dismissed Mr Baker's objections. "We see no reason why votes should not be counted by the human hand," said Doug Hattaway, Mr Gore's campaign manager.

In all, 80,000 ballots are at issue in Florida: those where voters have marked two or more choices, and papers where the machines could detect no clear choice. The former will be discarded; but a hand count of the latter - called "under-votes" - could reveal ballots where the voter had made a valid choice.

Based on previous hand counts in Florida elections, experts estimate these could add 500 to Mr Gore's count, sufficient to overturn Mr Bush's unofficial 327-vote lead. Some 2,000 postal ballots, expected to break in Mr Bush's favour, also remain to be counted.

Despite the shambles, Mr Bush is acting as if the state's 25 electoral college votes are in the bag. He appeared on his Texas ranch yesterday, readier to discuss transition arrangements than the uncertainty of the vote.

Mr Gore, by contrast, has said nothing. He has not been seen in public since Friday. But if he continues to trail, pressure will mount for him to concede, sparing the country a messy legal struggle and a possible constitutional crisis.

Florida is not the only contested state. In New Mexico, previously awarded to Mr Gore, Mr Bush has moved into a 17-vote lead, with a few hundred absentee votes remaining to be counted. In both Iowa and Wisconsin, Mr Gore is ahead by around 5,000 votes out of 1.3 million and 2.6 million cast respectively. In Oregon, which has been a toss-up since election day, he was leading by 6,000 votes with 40,000 postal votes still to come.

In all four states, the Bush camp threatens to demand recounts of its own if the Gore campaign does not accept the outcome in Florida.