Florida spotlight turns to steely Bush 'crony'

The Recount
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The Independent US

The surprise decision by a Florida judge yesterday to bring down the guillotine on the filing of official election returns in the crucial state moves the spotlight back on the steely Republican who set the 5pm deadline.

The surprise decision by a Florida judge yesterday to bring down the guillotine on the filing of official election returns in the crucial state moves the spotlight back on the steely Republican who set the 5pm deadline.

The Secretary of State of Florida, Katherine Harris, announced she would not accept any county vote totals after yesterday's deadline.

Mrs Harris, a 43-year old citrus heiress who is a friend of the Florida governor, Jeb Bush, brother of George W Bush, has been defending herself against Democratic charges of bias and says she only implements procedures. Gore aides have variously described her as a "Soviet commissar" and "crony of the Bush brothers".

Yesterday's decision introduced further confusion into the process which has moved the election of the 43rd President of the United States from the voting booth to the courtroom.

Lawsuits yesterday proliferated up and down the state, which holds the key to the presidential election result, faster than grasshoppers in a sub-tropical spring. An instant census of the Sunshine State would reveal a curious jump in population over the past seven days. The newcomers would not be new retirees from the sleet-bound North-east but smartly dressed lawyers.

Hundreds of legal professionals, many working for nothing, have descended on courthouses in several cities to join the battle that may end up deciding whether Al Gore or George W Bush, finally get tenancy of the White House.

After a federal judge, Donald Middlebrooks, threw out a Republican request in Miami on Monday for an injunction to stop all hand recounts in the state, attention switched yesterday to the state circuit judge, Terry Lewis, in Tallahassee, who refused the Democratic appeal to extend the deadline.

But Judge Lewis was hardly alone assuming the burden of trying to bring this struggle to a conclusion. Court actions were also pending or underway in counties where most of the problems on voting day were originally reported, including Palm Beach and Broward.

Nowhere was the situation more baffling than in Palm Beach, the impact point of the election post-mortem. Officials decided yesterday to suspend until today the start of a hand count of all votes cast statewide that was meant to start yesterday morning.

The hesitancy in Palm Beach followed conflicting orders from Tallahassee, the state capital. There was the disputed decree of Mrs Harris. Then a consolidated lawsuit filed in county court in West Palm Beach by six voters demanding a revote because last Tuesday's ballot confused them caused chaos.

That too was meant to begin yesterday, but was delayed after five judges in a row were picked for it, then recused themselves one after another because they could not guarantee they were free from bias. Whoever takes the case will face at least 30 lawyers.

And the Democratic Party has also gone to court in Palm Beach to demand a looser standard in determining what should be counted as a vote on every ballot that is examined. That suit asks that even where the chad, the little perforated rectangle that should pop out when a voter's spot is pricked, bears only an indentation, it should be reported as a vote.

In Broward County, surrounding Fort Lauderdale, still more legal action was imminent. Members of that county's canvassing board voted late Monday to ditch plans for a general hand count after concluding it would probably produce only a slight change in Mr Gore's favour compared to the electronic counts already done. The Democrat Party is challenging that decision in court to force a hand count.

Add to that various lawsuits by media organisations, notably the Associated Press, in several courts to have their proceedings open to reporters and cameras and you should get the picture: a state submerged in a storm of injunctions, writs and lawsuits, the manoeuvering as much about politics as it was about the law.

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