Florida's highest court handed Al Gore a crucial victory in his drive to overtake George W. Bush for the presidency, ruling that recounts from key Democratic counties must be included in the state's final tally.
Bush's Republicans furiously condemned the decision late Tuesday by the Florida Supreme Court as "unfair and unacceptable." But they did not immediately say what countermove they would make to the latest stunning twist in the two-week-old US election saga.
The seven Supreme Court justices unanimously overturned a lower court ruling that had kept manually recounted ballots from three counties out of the final overall tally because they were not submitted by the statutory deadline of November 14.
Instead, the court gave the counties until 5 p.m. (2200 GMT) this Sunday to submit amended results in the state which holds they key to the White House. If the state election office is closed Sunday, the deadline is extended to 9:00 a.m. (1400 GMT) Monday morning.
The justices also seemed to give local authorities wide latitude in accepting ballots rejected by voting machines, citing a court precedent that upheld the validity of such votes if the intent of the voter could be "ascertained with reasonable certainty."
The case was a "must-win" situation for Vice President Gore, who trailed Bush by a mere 930 votes out of some six million ballots cast in the southeastern state on November 7, according to unofficial results that exclude the recounts.
In a 42-page decision, the state Supreme Court here accepted the Democrats' arguments that the rights of voters outweighed requirements for strict compliance with the law.
"Twenty-five years ago, this court commented that the will of the people, not a hypertechnical reliance on statutory provisions, should be our guiding principle in election cases," the justices wrote.
"Our goal today remains the same as it was a quarter of a century ago. That is to reach the result that reflects the will of the voters whatever that might be," they said.
"Allowing the manual recounts to proceed in an expeditious manner, rather than imposing an arbitrary seven-day deadline, is consistent not only with the statutory scheme but with prior United States Supreme Court pronouncements."
An adverse ruling could have brought Gore's 13-year quest for the presidency to a close. He had come under mounting pressure, even among Democrats, not to pursue the issue further if he lost in the state Supreme Court.
Instead, the decision injected new life into his candidacy. Clearly elated, Gore told reporters in Washington that although it was still not known whether he or Bush would win the presidency: "We do know that our democracy is the winner tonight."
For the first time, the Democrat laid claim to the White House on an equal footing with Bush, the Texas governor who has been trying to act "presidential" for weeks. Gore said both men must now work on transition arrangements in the event they emerged victorious.
He also renewed his offer to meet with Bush to calm tensions between the two camps. "Let us testify to the truth that our country is more important than victory," Gore said.
But former secretary of state James Baker, Bush's chief attorney in the Florida legal imbroglio, responded with an angry denunciation of the court ruling, telling reporters in Tallahassee that "all of this is unfair and unacceptable.
"It is not fair to change the election laws of Florida by judicial fiat after the election has been held," said the former US secretary of state. "It is the not fair to change the rules and standards governing the counting or recounting of votes after it appears that one side has concluded that is the only way to get the votes it needs."
Baker did not say whether the campaign would appeal to the US Supreme Court, but insisted that "all options have to remain on the table" and strongly suggested that Florida's Republican-controlled legislature might step into the fray.
"Two weeks after the election, that court has changed the rules, and has invented a new system for counting the election results. So one should not now be surprised if the Florida legislature seeks to affirm the original rules," he said.
The momentous court decision, which involves recounts of some 1.7 million votes in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, came after two weeks of bitter wrangling in the closest US presidential election in more than a century.
Gore, who led Bush nationwide in the popular vote by nearly 263,000 votes, had a 262-246 edge in the split of 538 decisive electoral votes awarded on a state-by-state basis. So Florida, with its 25 electoral votes, holds the key to the White House.
It was far from given, however, that the recounts alone would put Gore over the top in the overtime battle to become the country's 43rd chief executive, succeeding Bill Clinton for a four-year term.
A complete recount in Broward County gave the Democrat 118 extra votes. In neighboring Palm Beach County, he found only a paltry three votes with a fifth of the precincts counted, and in Miami-Dade County, he gained 46 with just over 10 percent of precincts counted.
But these figures did not include the most contentious ballots, those that are placed to one side by the vote counters for later consideration by the election boards of each county.
The most problematic are ballots whose chads, the little perforated squares of paper that are supposed to fall off when the ballot is punched, remain attached and show no more than an indentation.
Thousands of ballots containing these dimpled, or pregnant chads have been set aside in the three counties, and the fate of the US presidency may yet rest on whether they are counted or not.
The Florida Supreme Court made no explicit response to a request by the Gore camp for specific criteria to determine which ballots should be included and which disallowed.
But it cited as "particularly apt" a 1990 ruling by the state Supreme Court in Illinois which said: "Whatever the reason, where the intention of the voter can be fairly and satisfactorily ascertained, that intention should be given effect" -- TALLAHASSEE (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)