TALLAHASSEE, Fla. â€“ Florida's secretary of state asked the state's top court Wednesday to delay any hand counting of ballots and consolidate lawsuits in the chaotic vote count that has left the presidential election hanging in the balance for more than a week.
Katherine Harris, a Republican, filed the petition with the state Supreme Court as officials in heavily Democratic Palm Beach County gathered to begin a recount that she has opposed. She earlier gave all counties until 2 p.m. EST Wednesday to justify to her why they should be allowed to conduct further counting past a 5 p.m. Tuesday deadline.
After the deadline, the state said the returns gave the election â€“ and perhaps the White House â€“ to Republican Gov. George W. Bush by 300 votes, an outcome hotly contested by Democratic lawyers who have been stepping up their legal fight.
In her petition, Harris said local canvassing boards should stop any effort to hand count ballots "pending resolution as to whether any basis exists to modify the certified results after the statutory deadline for submission of returns."
She also asked that the flurry of legal actions around the state be transferred to a court in Tallahassee, the state capital.
"Without question, this court must make it clear that the election of the president and vice president is not a matter of local pleasure," the petition said. "It is, at the least, a statewide matter of concern. This court must assume control over this litigation to preserve its ability to establish standards and to protect the voters of the state."
The state Supreme Court has seven members, all chosen by Democratic governors.
Meantime, Palm Beach County election officials decided Wednesday morning to postpone manual vote counting until a judge rules on a Democratic Party lawsuit demanding the canvassing board consider ballots that were previously rejected as incompletely punched.
A circuit court judge planned to hear the case later Wednesday morning.
Only Palm Beach County, which has sought guidance from the state Supreme Court on how to proceed in the face of conflicting advice, had been expected to go ahead with hand recounting Wednesday morning.
â€“Volusia County had completed a full manual recount. Nonetheless, Volusia County has challenged a state judge's ruling in a midlevel appeals court, with the expectation that the state Supreme Court would hear the case. A ruling from that court could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
â€“Broward County was holding off on a decision about whether to order a full hand count, though election officials planned to meet Wednesday to discuss it. The Democratic Party filed a motion in state court Tuesday arguing that Broward should be ordered to conduct a full hand count of its 588,000 ballots. The motion said the county's decision not to conduct such a recount was based on an erroneous opinion by Harris, who said a manual recount could only be conducted if county officials found a problem with the election computer.
â€“And Miami-Dade voted 2-1 Tuesday night against a full manual count after a hand count of three precincts awarded Democrat Al Gore a net gain of six votes.
Democrats said Tuesday's ruling gave them new legal options because Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said in his decision that counties still recounting ballots by hand at the request of Gore campaign's may be able to make a case for filing those totals late.
If Harris rejects those requests, Democrats could sue.
"If the secretary of state arbitrarily refuses to accept the amended returns based on the recount and violates what this court has ruled ... then we will be back in court," said David Boies, the latest high-profile lawyer to join Gore's legal team.
Democrats hope those recounts by human eye and hand will turn up additional votes for Gore.
Two separate appeals were heading for courts in Tallahassee, the state capital, and yet another challenge was headed for a federal appeals court in Atlanta.
Numerous voters have sued over alleged voting irregularities in Palm Beach. Celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz represents some of them.
Lawyers for the Palm Beach elections board said that without clear guidance from the state high court, the board will face more lawsuits, "the state and federal courts of Florida will be inundated with further litigation, the outcome of the general election will remain in doubt and subject to additional litigation."
Also Tuesday, the GOP filed notice that they planned to appeal a federal judge's ruling that allowed the recounts to go forward.
The GOP claims the manual recounts are unconstitutional since they mean some voters are treated differently depending on where they live. A ruling from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals could also end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said the Texas governor is a three-time winner in Florida, counting the Nov. 7 election, an automatic recount done last week and the totals certified by Harris on Tuesday.
In West Palm Beach, a judge considered 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.