Updated results of disputed manual recounts

George W. Bush won a key court victory in Florida’s high-stakes presidential election Friday when a state judge backed Secretary of State Katherine Harris’ decision to reject manual recounts under way in two Democratic counties. Officials began tabulating absentee ballots from overseas, sparking fresh controversy.

The early returns from overseas ballots gave Bush 10 votes and gave Gore five. Democrats in Monroe County protested two of the votes allocated to the Texas governor.

At the other end of the state, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis issued a brief order that reaffirmed Harris’ intention to disregard the results of manual recounts in two heavily Democratic counties. Aides said they expected Gore’s lawyers to appeal. The recounts continued anyway.

Bush holds a 305-vote lead in the state that will decide the winner of the presidential election, including tabulation of overseas ballots from four counties. Harris is expected to certify a winner on Saturday once the overseas votes are in hand from all 67 counties.

Those totals do not include the returns from the disputed hand recounts sought by Democrats in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Those have given Gore an additional 34 votes so far.

The day’s developments were difficult to follow, impossible to predict.

The result was easy to discern: 10 days after the nation voted, there was no president-elect, and no agreed-upon timetable for determining one.

Republicans sought to use the court ruling to close out Gore’s challenge for the White House.

Little more than an hour after the ruling, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III said Bush and running mate Dick Cheney were ‘understandably pleased.’ Underscoring the GOP ticket’s eagerness to close out Gore’s challenge, Baker said Republicans look forward to counting overseas ballots ‘so that the process of achieving a final result to the election in Florida is not subject to further delays.’

Dick Cheney, appearing Thursday night on ABC’s PrimeTime Live,’ said he and Bush are prepared to declare victory Saturday if Florida certifies them as the winners of the state’s 25 electoral votes — even if hand counts are continuing.

‘That would be a serious mistake to do that,’ former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, representing Gore, countered Friday on ABC’s ‘Good Morning America.’ He said ‘we’ll take all the legal steps we can’ if that happens

Both sides in the election contest assume that Bush will benefit when the overseas votes are counted, making Gore’s attempt to win recounts of more than one million ballots essential to his effort to overtake his rival.

Lewis’ court order, read by a court clerk and broadcast live nationally, was succinct.

Based on the ‘limited evidence presented, it appears that the secretary has exercised her reasoned judgment … applied them to the facts … and made her decision. My order requires nothing more,’ it said.

In a brief statement, Harris said she would ‘continue to follow the election procedures provided by Florida law. She added, ‘we anticipate receiving the certifications of the overseas absentee ballots from all counties by noon tomorrow.’

Lawyers and political aides said they expected Gore to appeal Lewis’ order to the state Supreme Court in Tallahassee. If so, it would be the second election-related case in as many days to come before the state’s highest court, a sign that the nation’s postelection drama may be nearing a conclusion.

On Thursday, in a brief unanimous order, the state’s high court justices ruled that the recounts could continue, but took no position on whether Harris should be required to take them into account when she certified the results of the election.

‘Let the will of the people be done,’ Gore campaign chairman William Daley said Thursday after the high court ruling. Other Democrats warned of legal action if Harris refuses to accept the results of the hand recanvasses.

Bush’s campaign chairman said Harris’ vote certification deadline was fixed by state law and ‘must be honored.’ Only the tally of the absentee ballots from overseas remains to be rolled into previously certified vote totals showing Bush with a 300-vote margin, Don Evans insisted.

And then, he said, ‘Win or lose, this election will be over.’ But a rash of legal actions by both sides made such a decisive ending improbable.

Officials in the state’s 67 counties said they would begin tallying their overseas ballots as soon as they received Friday morning mail delivery.

At the same time, officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties — heavily Democratic areas around Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach — were working their way by hand through hundreds of thousands of ballots. The Gore campaign is hoping the results of those recounts, as well as one the vice president is seeking in Miami-Dade County, will let him vault ahead of Bush.

Gore aides conceded the recounts wouldn’t be completed before Harris’ deadline, adding to the prospect of more legal action in a case that has generated plenty.

The controversy’s lengthening docket ran to a federal appeals court in Atlanta, where judges are considering the Bush campaign’s bid to shut down the recounts.

The federal court also agreed to consider a related case filed by three Bush supporters from Brevard County. They claim their rights are being violated because their counties are not recanvassing votes by hand.

In a controversy drenched in politics, no one escaped scrutiny.

Democrats noted that Harris is a Republican and staunch Bush supporter. Republicans pointed out that all seven members of the Florida Supreme Court owe their appointments to Democrats.