The United States Supreme Court
Monday, the big guns passed down a ruling that may or may not mean a darn thing.
SCOTUS "vacated" the Florida Supreme Court's decision to extend the state's certification deadline, essentially asking the lower court Justices to clarify their opinion and the reasoning leading up to it. The unsigned brief was less decisive than a traditional ruling but spoke volumes to the Florida Supreme Court judges, who will now decide whether to take the case up again and resubmit an opinion. In the meantime, if the SCOTUS decision stands, George W. Bush's lead reverts to the 900+ vote figure he enjoyed prior to the certification deadline extension.
A bit of background: On Tuesday, Nov. 21, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that the recounts were to continue, and the results were to be included in the final state tally. The Bush legal team immediately filed an appeal to the United States Supreme Court, which agreed to hear opening arguments from both campaigns. And while everyone involved in the case was duly awestruck by the prospect of an audience with the U.S. Supreme Court, the Justices' ultimate decision may end up meaning little, especially when compared to the more immediate and pressing decisions facing Florida's state courts. After all, even through the Court ostensibly ruled in favor of Bush, thereby nullifying the recount tally, Bush still leads by less than 1,000 votes in Florida.
The Florida State Courts
Al Gore's effort to overturn the result of the presidential election in Florida was dealt a severe blow on Monday afternoon when Leon County Court Judge N. Sanders Sauls refused to order the hand recounts sued for by the vice president. First, said Judge Sauls, Gore's lawyers did not prove that election would have changed if the recount took place. He also ruled that there was no evidence to show abuse of discretion by the canvassing boards in Palm Beach, Miami-Dade or Nassau counties; that there is no evidence of fraud or improper influence in the counting process; and that there is no preponderance of evidence showing balloting or counting problems widespread enough to necessitate a recount. Gore's lawyers immediately announced that they were appealing the decision to the Florida Supreme Court.
Here were the specific issues before the Leon County court:
Palm Beach County: County election officials were up in arms because Secretary of State Katherine Harris refused to accept their recount numbers after they missed the deadline at 5 p.m. Sunday. Gore lawyers argued those new calculations would have helped their candidate.
Miami-Dade County: The county stopped recounting its votes altogether last Wednesday after deciding they couldn't possibly finish before the Sunday deadline. The Gore team pointed to preliminary numbers from a test count in Miami-Dade showing considerable gains for the vice president.
Nassau County: The canvassing board reverted to election-night tallies after discovering that a ballot-counting machine had malfunctioned during the recount. A recount in Nassau is likely to produce more votes for Bush than for Gore, but that hasn't stopped the Gore legal team from stepping in and demanding updated numbers.
Meanwhile, the Seminole County case...
In another room in the same courthouse, Circuit Court Judge Nikki Clark ruled in favor of Al Gore's lawyers, who are fighting to keep a challenge to Seminole County absentee ballots separate from the vice president's lawsuit contesting the election. A Democratic activist has charged Republican election workers of improperly writing in voter-registration numbers on thousands of absentee ballot requests in heavily Republican Seminole County, and wants to have all the county's 15,000 or so absentee ballots discarded from the general tally. Gore's team is wary of such an argument, which runs counter to their contention that "every vote must be counted." The case challenging the Seminole County ballots will be heard December 6.
... And the Martin County case
Friday, Democrats sued the canvassing board in Republican-leaning Martin County, and asked the court to throw out nearly 10,000 absentee ballots. The charge is identical to that leveled against Seminole County officials: Plaintiffs claim voter ID numbers were added illegally to ballots. If the court ruled in favor of the Democrats, Gore could pick up almost 3,000 votes.
The Florida Supreme Court
The butterfly ballot appeal: At last, a bit of closure: According to the Florida high court, the infamous butterfly ballot is legal. While the plaintiffs (i.e., Gore and allies) claimed that the Palm Beach County ballot (which placed candidates' names on both sides of the ballot's punch holes) violates state election law, which requires that all candidates' names be to the left of the holes, the court saw things differently. Friday evening, the Justices upheld a lower court's ruling that the ballots are legal and dismissed the Democrats' case "with prejudice." (In other words, they rejected the appeal and indicated they have no interest in seeing the case again.)
Let the arguments continue.