Florida now holds the key to the presidency

The Recount
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The Independent US

The anxious eyes of America, and much of the world, were trained on the state of Florida where officials yesterday ordered an emergency presidential election recount which will belatedly determine who will take the White House.

The anxious eyes of America, and much of the world, were trained on the state of Florida where officials yesterday ordered an emergency presidential election recount which will belatedly determine who will take the White House.

All across the Sunshine State, officials were recollating the ballot papers of about six million voters after first results suggested Republican George W Bush had beaten Vice-President Al Gore in the highly contested state by a razor-thin margin of 1,784 votes.

At Wolfies' Coffee Shop in South Beach, Miami, the mood was defiantly pro-Gore. Its octogenarian owner, Joseph Nevel, suspected fraud, particularly in the absentee ballot. "If Gore has the stamina to demand an investigation of the absentee ballots he has a very good chance of coming through," he insisted.

Eating a pastrami sandwich, Kim Gugliotta said the suspense was exhausting. A Gore supporter, she was convinced he had won Florida when she left home on Tuesday night, only to find the state was up in the air again when she returned at midnight. "I thought he had it, the networks led you to believe he had it. But then it was a huge let down. But at the same time isn't this exciting?"

It was still unclear when the outcome of the recount would be established. One election official suggested the process might not be finished until this afternoon, Florida time.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Florida emerged as a pivotal state for the candidates where they were running in a battle for its rich trove of 25 electoral college votes. But bewildered Floridians were surely never prepared for the event where they alone would end up deciding who would be given keys to the White House.

The gravity of the situation was spelt out yesterday by Florida's Attorney General, Bob Butterworth. "We literally are not electing a governor and we are not electing a mayor," he said. "We are electing a president of the United States and as few as 200 votes could make the difference."

If the US felt confused yesterday, in Florida the mood was one of exasperation. Residents woke up to find newspaper headlines giving the race to Mr Bush. "BUSH WINS IT," blared the Miami Herald. But the television told them a different story, with the outcome still in the balance.

With officials exhausted by the events of Tuesday night, most of the 67 counties in the state only managed to get the recount started at around noon.Donald Jones, a law professor at the University of Miami and former political candidate, expressed scepticism that the recount would push Mr Gore past the Governor of Texas. "Recounts usually do very little other than confirm the results of the election," he said.

Other factors clouding the likely outcome of the recount included delays in adding absentee ballots to the final count. Elections supervisors had sent out 585,000 absentee ballots and 416,000 had been returned late on Monday. Officials were also waiting for ballots filled in by Floridians living abroad.

Moreover, a separate controversy erupted around Palm Beach, where numerous voters complained that a confusing ballot paper might have led them to vote mistakenly for Pat Buchanan, the Reform Party candidate, instead of Mr Gore. Their two names were printed adjacent to one another, on the same line, on these papers.

But experts did not believe the dispute would hold up an announcement of the result. When a vote is cast it is legally unchangeable. "Once you say what you mean, it is assumed you meant it," Mr Jones said.

Both parties said they had dispatched teams of lawyers to Florida's capital, Tallahassee, to oversee the recount. Leading the effort for the Democrats was the former Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

Officials from the Democrats and the Republicans were also expected to arrive at every recount station to help in the supervision of the process and to watch for any irregularities.

The process may not be concluded until 5pm (10pm GMT) today, said Clay Roberts, the director of Florida's Division of Elections. "We think it's important the people of Florida have an answer as quickly as possible. But also we think it's important that we do this right." It may be 10 days before all the foreign resident ballots arrive. State residents abroad have to ensure their ballots are post-marked by Tuesday. Many will come from military personnel who are unlikely to support Al Gore, and they may not exceed the number processed in 1996, about 2,300.

Also rushing to Tallahassee yesterday was Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida and brother of George W Bush. If his state is found to have gone to Gore, the consequences for him will be devastating. It had always been assumed his stewardship of Florida would be enough to push into his brother's column.