TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) â€” Officials in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County put their hand recount of ballots on hold Tuesday while representatives of Al Gore and George W. Bush argued over a deadline for certifying the results of all votes cast in the state.
The Palm Beach officials voted 2-1 to delay the manual recount of about 430,000 ballots until they could clarify whether they had the legal authority to proceed. The Gore camp planned to appeal.
Palm Beach County is asking the Florida Supreme Court to clarify which opinion is correct.
The dispute produced conflicting opinions from the Democratic attorney general and Republican election officials.
Clay Roberts, director of the division of elections, issued an advisory opinion Tuesday morning to Palm Beach County, saying it does not have a right to conduct a hand recount of ballots.
``Unless the discrepancy between the number of votes determined by the tabulation system and by the manual recount of four precincts is caused by incorrect election parameters or software errors, the county canvassing board is not authorized to manually recount ballots for the entire county,'' Roberts said.
The state's Democratic attorney general, Robert Butterworth, immediately issued a conflicting opinion Tuesday morning, saying the county has a right to hand count ballots.
``The (county) canvassing board has the authority to determine that the voter's intention is clearly expressed ...,'' Butterworth said.
The division of elections is under the office of Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who sent a letter to the counties Monday saying each faced a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline to report results.
Harris and Butterworth are both members of the Florida Cabinet, which also includes Gov. Jeb Bush, brother of George W. Bush. Each is elected statewide with equal standing.
The conflict over the Palm Beach count was likely to be settled in court.
``We've got two opinions, and a judge needs to tell us how to proceed,'' said County Judge Charles Burton, canvassing board chairman in Palm Beach County.
A senior Gore strategist said the board's decision to delay the recount would be challenged immediately in Circuit Court, along with the Florida secretary of state's ruling on which that decision was based.
Palm Beach County is a Democratic stronghold where voters first complained that they were confused by their ballots. Their outcry unleashed a political tide that froze Florida's 25 electoral votes and left Americans waiting to see who their 43rd president will be.
With the 5 p.m. deadline fast approaching, judges in three Florida cities were deciding the fate of recounted votes.
In Volusia County, where workers began hand counting 184,019 ballots Sunday, officials said they didn't think they would be finished by 5 p.m. The county was prepared to send partial results to the state.
Regardless of the fate of the contested deadline, absentee ballots from overseas will be counted at the end of the week; they are due by midnight Friday night.
A federal judge who turned away Bush's initial effort to stop the recounting said Monday the stakes couldn't be higher.
``I believe these are serious arguments. The question becomes who should consider them,'' said U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks, who declined Bush's request for emergency federal intervention and ruled the issue was best left to local courts.
In Tallahassee, a judge expressed doubts about the deadline as he weighed a request from Gore and two counties to give more time for recounting that could stretch into the weekend in Palm Beach County.
Leon County Circuit Judge Terry P. Lewis repeatedly questioned Monday why the state had set the Tuesday deadline when absentee votes coming from overseas can continue to be counted through the end of the week. ``What's the good of doing a certification ahead of time?'' Lewis asked. He also questioned how a large county could ever get a hand recount done within seven days since voters have three days before they even have to request one. Lewis was expected to rule Tuesday.
Republicans argue the manual recounting should be ended because the process is prone to abuse and political bias. Democrats hope the recounts will help Gore pick up enough votes to overcome Bush's narrow lead in the state, which an informal Associated Press tally put at 388 votes.
With six of seven of Florida's Supreme Court justices appointed by Democrats, Bush lawyers signaled their strategy was to play defense in the state courts. The seventh was picked by Democrat Lawton Chiles and seconded by Bush's brother, Jeb, the Florida governor.
On other legal fronts:
â€”In West Palm Beach, a judge is considering the lawsuits of voters seeking a new vote in their county. The voters argue the punch-card ballots they were given on Election Day may have confused them enough to mistakenly vote for Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan when they intended to vote for Gore.
â€”The Florida Democratic Party sued the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board on Monday evening, challenging the board's method of reading the ballots. The party wants ``pregnant chads'' â€” dimpled fragments not detached from the card â€” counted as votes.
â€”Democrats prepared to go to court in Broward County to overturn a decision by officials there not to order a countywide manual recount. The county's canvassing board decided Monday against the recount, after counting a sample of votes by hand in three precincts and finding no major discrepancies.
``We intend to file litigation seeking judicial relief from this decision, which we think was based on an erroneous legal decision sent down by the secretary of state,'' Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jenny Backus said.
Officials in Miami-Dade County â€” the state's most populous â€” were to vote Tuesday on whether to conduct a recount requested by Gore's campaign.
Bush's legal team was weighing whether to escalate a fight it began in federal court. The options include appealing Middlebrooks' decision to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, or possibly going to the U.S. Supreme Court on an emergency basis, according to Republican officials familiar with Bush's strategy.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the possibility that Republicans would seek to expand voter recounts to other Florida counties where Bush fared well was ``perceived as unlikely'' at this time because deadlines for requesting such recounts had expired in many counties.