Millions of US voters held their breath Tuesday as seven Florida Supreme Court justices pondered decisions that could determine the outcome of the stalled US presidential election.
At the heart of the case is whether manual recounts of ballots currently under way in three Florida counties should be included in the state's final official results of the November 7 election.
Since the counties where the recounts are underway are heavily Democratic, a decision to include them would be seen to favor Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore while a refusal would likely boost the chances of Republican George W. Bush.
The Texas governor is leading Gore in the official but yet uncertified tally by 930 votes.
Because of the pressing nature of the case, the judges could deliver their decision as soon as Tuesday, court officials said.
"The court is certainly aware of the historic nature of this session and is aware that this is a matter of utmost and vital importance to our nation, our state and our world," said Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Wells .
On Monday, the high court held a hearing that became a national event, as television networks broadcast every word of the arguments presented by both sides for slightly more than two hours.
Top Gore lawyer David Boies was beaming as he emerged from the courtroom, in stark contrast to Bush's lead attorney Michael Carvin, who was grim-faced after being subjected to relentless interruptions by the judges.
But publicly, the Bush campaign exuded confidence about the outcome of the case.
"I believe that their ruling will reflect the kind of precision that is needed under the circumstances, and we feel good and confident about our case in that regard," said Montana Governor Marc Racicot, the chief recount monitor for the Bush camp.
During their arguments for and against including the recounts in Florida's final vote tally, each side pointed to pertinent sections of Florida law to support their reasons.
The Gore camp also wants the judges to set generous guidelines for establishing voter intent when tallying punched ballots -- they argued, for example, that marks indented but not properly punched through should count. Bush's lawyers disagreed.
Gore's lawyers argued that the issue was of such importance, and questions about the conduct of the vote so numerous, that a painstaking review of each ballot in three counties was called for.
But Wells remained non-committal.
"We have a long-standing policy out of courts of this state that say that the real parties and interests here are the voters," the chief justice noted without elaborating.
Also engaged in the case were attorneys for Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who argued that, under state law, extensions in certifying votes are allowed only in cases of fraud, mechanical failure or extreme bad weather.
"The fact is this problem could have been resolved if the people asking for a manual recount, right or wrong, had completed the manual recount within the time period set forth," argued Joe Klock, an attorney representing Harris.
After the November 7 vote, Florida's 67 counties by law one week, until November 14, to send the poll results. Overseas absentee ballots were given until November 17 to arrive.
Gore's attorneys claimed that Harris abused her authority when she refused to accept manual recounts submitted after November 14, which Harris said was a statutory deadline.
Gore believes the recounts will show he won Florida's popular vote, thereby winning the state's 25 Electoral College votes and the US presidency. According to partial results of the recounts, however, Gore is still far short of the votes he needs to beat Bush.
Electoral officials in Palm Beach County said Gore gained only three additional, with about half of the county's 531 precincts reporting; in Broward County, Gore reportedly gained 118 votes, with 518 out of 609 precincts reporting, and in Miami Dade, Gore had 12 additional votes with only 11 of the 614 precincts reporting.
Bush's lawyers say the governor's 930-vote lead must be certified immediately.
"Federal law will not allow this court or the Florida legislature to change the rules of the election after the election has taken place," argued Bush lawyer Michael Carvin.
The Bush camp claimed manual vote recounts in some parts of the state were riddled with irregularities and suggested that Democrats had a hand in the alleged mischief.
The Gore team was challenged by the justices on several occasions about concerns that hand recounts would continue for so long that Florida electors would be excluded from the Electoral College that meets on December 18.
For Florida to take part, the cut-off date for finishing the vote count would be December 12.
"Given the particular deadline, the wall, that is set out by the federal provision this court needs to act expeditiously," said Boies.
Meanwhile, a judge in the key county of Palm Beach separately rejected a petition to organize a new presidential election there, saying there was no provision in state law for such a move -- Democrats and locals claim that more than 19,000 voters were confused by the ballot's "butterfly" design and placed marks next to the wrong candidates --TALLAHASSEE (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)