TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Supreme Court blocked Secretary of State Katherine Harris from certifying the results of the presidential election today, giving Democratic candidate Al Gore a boost in his legal battle to win the crucial state.
Justices, in a unanimous ruling, ordered Harris and a state elections panel to hold off certifying the results until the court can decide whether the state should accept new recounts from three South Florida counties.
Harris planned to ignore the recounts and certify the election this afternoon, a position backed by Republican candidate George W. Bush, who leads Gore by a few hundred votes.
Earlier yesterday, a lower state court ruled that Harris had the authority to reject recount totals that came in past a state deadline, and Gore appealed to the state Supreme Court. Justices scheduled a hearing for Monday but did not indicate when they might rule.
Gore said the court's order yesterday was important, as Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties -- all Democratic strongholds -- moved forward with recounting hundreds of thousands of ballots by hand.
"As I have said all along, we need to get a fair and accurate count to resolve this election," Gore said in a brief televised statement from Washington.
But Bush adviser James Baker downplayed the significance of the court's order. He said the campaign thinks the Supreme Court will uphold the lower-court ruling.
"We remain confident that . . . the Supreme Court will find that the secretary of state exercised her discretion and followed the law," said Baker, a former U.S. secretary of state.
The Supreme Court -- whose seven justices all were appointed by Democratic governors -- issued its order yesterday as elections officials throughout the state counted late-arriving absentee ballots from overseas. Bush, who led Gore by 300 votes after an initial recount of the Nov. 7 election, extended his lead yesterday in early results from the overseas ballots.
With overseas votes in 63 of 67 counties counted, a survey by The Associated Press showed Bush picked up another 352 votes.
The overseas ballots were due by midnight Friday and Harris hoped they would be the final votes counted before the state certified a winner.
The South Florida recounts have become the key legal and political battleground as Gore and Bush compete for the state's 25 electoral votes. Both candidates need to win the state to reach the 270 electoral votes required to clinch the presidency.
In another legal boost for the Gore campaign yesterday, a federal appeals court in Atlanta rejected efforts by Bush to block counties from recounting ballots by hand.
After receiving nearly 2,000 pages of briefs from more than 120 lawyers, candidates and elections officials, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a federal judge's ruling this week in Miami that the said states -- not the federal government -- have the primary responsibility for overseeing elections.
Broward and Palm Beach counties have counted ballots by hand during the past two days, while Miami-Dade officials decided yesterday to go ahead with a similar recount.
Democrats argue recounting ballots by hand is necessary because of possible irregularities in the election, including a confusing Palm Beach County ballot that might have cost Gore thousands of votes. But Republicans say the so-called "manual" recounts invite mistakes and fraud.
Harris, a Republican and Bush supporter, said she would not accept totals from the manual recounts because too much time had passed since the election. She said state law imposed a Tuesday deadline for counting ballots, except the overseas absentee ballots.
The Supreme Court order yesterday came hours after Republicans celebrated what appeared to be a significant court victory in Tallahassee.
In a two-page ruling, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis rejected the Gore campaign's arguments that Harris had arbitrarily decided to ignore manual ballots. …