by Anne Gearan
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris rejected requests from Democratic-leaning counties Wednesday night to include the result of hand recounts in presidential vote totals. George W. Bush opposes the ballot reviews and Al Gore favors them in their battle for the White House.
The state's chief elections officer, sharply criticized by Democrats in recent days as a partisan Republican, declared it was "my duty under Florida law" to reject requests that four counties submitted earlier in the day.
She noted her decision was subject to an appeal in the courts -- and it seemed likely there would be one.
Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani, minutes after her announcement, said the Democrat will challenge Harris' decision in the state courts. "It's an outrageous decision. It's a rash decision and it won't stand," he said.
Bush leads Gore by 300 votes in the state whose 25 electoral votes will settle the presidential election, according to totals certified by Harris on Tuesday night. They are subject to change only from an unknown number of absentee ballots to be counted by midnight Friday, she said.
Harris stepped to the microphones to make her announcement seven hours after the 2 p.m. deadline she had set for counties to petition for the right to update their returns.
She said four counties had done so -- Democratic-leaning Broward, Palm and Miami-Dade and GOP stronghold Collier -- and she had reviewed their paperwork.
"The reasons given in the requests are insufficient to warrant waiver of the unambiguous filing deadline imposed by the Florida Legislature," she said, without further elaboration.
The announcement capped a tumultuous day in which the state supreme court refused to stop hand recounts planned or underway in the three heavily Democratic counties. But a federal appeals court in Atlanta agreed to consider the Bush campaign's attempt to halt the new canvasses.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' unusually rapid decision Wednesday to accept the case could launch the controversy firmly on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Earlier in the day, Harris led the parade to the Florida Supreme Court with an early-morning lawsuit asking the justices to block the hand recounts at least temporarily, and to consolidate election-related lawsuits. The court turned her down without a hearing.
The Bush campaign has fought to stop the recounts on several fronts.
Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III argued on Wednesday that the "process is unfair, gives rise to human error, gives rise to the potential for great mischief."
Baker lamented the proliferation of lawsuits, saying the situation has "run amok now."
Warren Christopher, the former secretary of state chosen to lead Gore's recount, defended the legal strategy. "We simply must, in order to protect the rights of the vice president in this matter, enable us to take steps that seem warranted," Christopher said.
In rejecting Harris' suit, the justices, all chosen by Democratic governors, did not address the many other election-related legal challenges making their way through Florida courts.
"Our legal team is reviewing it, but we are certainly pleased the court has ordered that the counts should proceed," said Doug Hattaway, a spokesman for Democrat Al Gore.
The Bush camp disputed that interpretation and noted that the state high court's one-paragraph rejection slip did not address the substance of Harris' request. The court left open the option that Harris could sue in a lower state court, or make her arguments another way.
The state high court agreed to review complaints from two South Florida counties -- Broward and Palm Beach -- that say they are confused about how to proceed with recounts. Harris and state Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth have given the counties conflicting guidance. The counties are suing both.
The status of recounts in four counties hand-picked by Democrats shifted quickly:
--Officials in Palm Beach, where concerns about the ballot design prompted the Florida dispute, left Wednesday without starting their manual recount. They plan to meet Thursday afternoon to decide how to begin.
--Election officials in Broward County reversed course and authorized a hand recount they previously had rejected. The county canvassing board approved the recount 2-1, with the pivotal vote cast by chairman Robert W. Lee, a Democrat and county judge who switched his vote. Republicans lost a court battle to block the recount.
--Volusia has already completed its recount and reported it to the state;
--Miami-Dade, Florida's largest, has declined a countywide hand recount for the time being. All are heavily Democratic areas where Gore supporters hope to find additional votes for the vice president.
In Gadsden County, west of Tallahassee, a new dispute arose after county election officials announced a recheck of more than 2,000 ballots that had been rejected by voting machines gave Gore a net gain of 153. The gain helped whittle Bush's statewide lead to 300 in new figures announced Tuesday.
Republicans complained that those disputed ballots should not have been counted; Democrats on Wednesday withdrew a request to review the disputed ballots.
The legality of the recounts is being challenged on several fronts by Republicans, while Democrats countered that Florida law allows them.
"Under Florida law, any candidate has a right to get a manual recount," Gore lawyer David Boies said. "What we're saying is: Don't change the rules in the middle of the game, don't shut out the manual recount here when that has been a traditional part of Florida law."
In Atlanta, the federal appeals court said that all 12 of its judges would hear Bush's challenge to the hand recounts in selected Democratic-leaning counties. Bush lost a similar bid in federal court in Miami earlier this week.