WASHINGTON - In a dizzying day of developments, the battle over Florida's presidential election count shifted yesterday to a Tallahassee courthouse, where a state judge is to rule this morning on whether several counties must end their recount of votes by 5 p.m. today or continue their laborious hand tallying of ballots.
The day's events determined that the results of the presidential election will be heavily shaped by the nation's court system. And for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore, yesterday's developments offered promise and peril.
As the 2000 election entered its sixth day in overtime, Gore won the first legal skirmish as a federal judge in Miami dismissed a lawsuit by Bush that was intended to halt hand counts of ballots in four heavily Democratic Florida counties.
But the victory might have been rendered meaningless by an order by Florida's Republican secretary of state, Katherine Harris, that all vote counts end by 5 p.m. today. Of the four counties undertaking manual recounts, one, Volusia, says it can meet that deadline.
Last night, officials of Broward County - one of the four - said a manual recount in three precincts had turned up no major problems, and they decided against extending a hand count to the entire county.
Gore campaign officials rushed to Tallahassee yesterday to add the vice president's name to Volusia County's lawsuit seeking an extension of the 5 p.m. deadline. Volusia had filed suit before it was sure it could meet today's deadline, and the suit was soon joined by Palm Beach County. The lawsuit marks the first time that Gore has taken legal action since Election Day failed to resolve who would become the 43rd president. And the move elicited the first public comments from Gore since Wednesday.
"What is at stake is the integrity of our democracy, making sure that the will of the American people is expressed and accurately received," Gore said at the White House. "That is why I have believed from the start that while time is important, it is even more important that every vote is counted and counted accurately."
In counseling patience, the vice president appeared to chide his rival for pushing on several fronts to halt the hand-counting of ballots.
"Look, I would not want to win the presidency by a few votes cast in error or misinterpreted or not counted," Gore said, "and I don't think Governor Bush wants that either."
Gore's comments prompted Bush's communications director, Karen P. Hughes, to all but accuse the Democrats of trying to steal the election. "Today, the vice president essentially said we should ignore the law so that he could overturn the results of this election," Hughes said.
Yesterday's events raised the possibilities that the tortuous battle over Florida recounts could end abruptly at 5 p.m. today or stretch on at least through the weekend.
After meeting with senior Gore advisers yesterday morning, Harris, the Florida secretary of state, emerged to declare that state law gave her no choice but to demand that all the state's 67 counties report their election results this afternoon or risk having none of their ballots count.
Noting a balance between the right of each voter to have his ballot counted and the right of the public "to a clear, final result within a reasonable time," Harris decreed that seven days is enough.
"The law unambiguously states when the process of counting and recounting the votes cast on Election Day must end," Harris said. "For this election, that time is 5 p.m., Nov. 14."
Gore campaign operatives came out with guns blazing. Chris Lehane, Gore's spokesman, dismissed Harris, an elected official, as "a crony of the Bush brothers" who worked on Gov. Jeb Bush's gubernatorial campaign and George W. Bush's presidential run.
Former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who is representing Gore's interests in Florida, declared Harris' deadline "both arbitrary and unreasonable." The state, he noted, will not be able to officially certify the election results until at least Friday evening, when overseas absentee ballots are to be tabulated, and he said she does have the authority to extend the deadline.
"Her plan, I'm afraid, has the look of an effort to produce a particular result in the election, rather than to ensure that the voice of all the citizens of the state would be heard," Christopher said.
Neither side is disputing that Florida election law states that election returns must be sent to the Florida secretary of state's office by 5 p.m. on the seventh day after the election. The debate centers on a penalty in the law that says that if the deadline is missed, "such returns may be ignored." Because the law uses the word "may," Democrats say Harris has the discretion to extend the deadline.
They cite a 1988 Florida Supreme Court decision on Florida election law that concluded "that the primary consideration in an election contest is whether the will of the people has been effected."