US Presidency heads for court

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The Independent US

The stage was set for a no-holds-barred judicial showdown for the US presidency yesterday as the two rival candidates lined up behind their parties and lawyers to fight their cause through two sets of courts. They are contesting the vexed issue of manual recounts, which the Democrats hope, and Republicans fear, could deliver the election to Vice-President Al Gore.

The stage was set for a no-holds-barred judicial showdown for the US presidency yesterday as the two rival candidates lined up behind their parties and lawyers to fight their cause through two sets of courts. They are contesting the vexed issue of manual recounts, which the Democrats hope, and Republicans fear, could deliver the election to Vice-President Al Gore.

First blood went to Mr Gore and the Democrats with a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court allowing manual recounts of the vote in three heavily Democratic counties. Vice President Al Gore has announced that he will abide by the Florida recount if Bush agrees to allow a manual count in three Democratic counties.

Florida's Republican Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, had petitioned the court to have manual recounts blocked, allowing the results already submitted to stand. These results, submitted by Tuesday afternoon's deadline, give George W Bush victory in Florida by 300 votes. But the Gore campaign and Florida Democrats argued that poorly designed ballot papers and disorganised counting had made the two automatic counts inaccurate.

But there was a victory for the Bush campaign, too. The federal appeals court in Atlanta agreed to consider its arguments against a lower court decision in Florida that also had the effect of permitting manual recounts. Papers in the case were to be lodged by 7am this morning.

Mr Bush's representative in Florida, James Baker, insisted that the state Supreme Court had no jurisdiction in the matter of manual recounts, and that the federal court should decide. The Bush campaign maintains that manual counting is inferior to machine-counting, but the Gore campaign disagrees.

The only votes remaining to be counted in Florida are unspecified numbers of absentee ballots, which must arrive by midnight tomorrow.

Ms Harris, whose close association with the Bush campaign has placed her in the trickiest of positions, was also rebuffed in her request thatthe Supreme Court hear all election-related pleas in one case. However, the court left her the option of resubmitting her petition to a lower court.

On Tuesday, Ms Harris relaxed the 5pm deadline for counties to report their tallies, but angered the Gore campaign by ordering counties wanting to hold a manual recount to submit their reasons in writing by 2pm yesterday.

A manual recount in Volusia County - the only county that managed to complete its recount by Tuesday - produced an additional 98 votes for Mr Gore. Comparable results from Broward County, Palm Beach County and Miami-Dade County, all of which have requested manual recounts, could give Mr Gore victory in Florida - and thus make him President.

What was still unclear, however, was whether those counties would take the Florida Supreme Court decision as clearance for their manual recounts, or whether they would wait for a ruling from the federal appeals court, which could be handed down today.

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