Legislature moves to choose electors

By Glen Johnson, Globe Staff, 12/12/2000

ALLAHASSEE - The US Supreme Court commanded the presidential election spotlight yesterday, but Tallahassee continued to buzz as the Legislature took preliminary steps to choose backup electors favoring George W. Bush, while the state Supreme Court considered two appeals that could benefit Al Gore.

The vote on the alternate slate of electors was a party-line 4-3 in the Senate, but one Democrat defected in the House committee's 5-2 vote, the first visible crack in party loyalty in a debate that has divided the Legislature as the election has divided the nation.

While the state certified a slate of 25 pro-Bush electors on Nov. 26, Republicans say an alternate slate is needed to ensure that Florida is represented at the Electoral College if legal challenges to the state election results continue. Democrats contend Republicans are just trying to find a way to deliver Bush the electoral votes he needs to beat Gore.

''I represent a good district, very good people, and I listen to them,'' said Democratic state Representative Dwight Stansel, whose district voted heavily for Bush. ''If you don't listen to them, you'll be home.''

The action incited a harsh response from US Representative Robert Wexler, a Democrat who represents Broward and Palm Beach counties. Flanked by 60 Florida citizens who had testified before the legislative committees, he said the House and Senate should await the result of ballot counts halted on Saturday by the US Supreme Court.

''My friends, my fellow Floridians, this is the United States of America. This is not Cuba. This is not Russia. This is Florida, and people all over our great state went and cast their votes on Election Day,'' Wexler said. ''The Florida Legislature is willing apparently to cast those votes aside.''

House Speaker Thomas Feeney, a Republican who has spearheaded the resolution to name the alternate slate, said the Legislature was only working to guarantee that Florida's votes would reach the Electoral College.

''Unless and until the US Supreme Court guarantees us that Florida's electors are protected, then I think it is our duty, based on the best advice we could get, to move forward,'' Feeney said after the votes. He said lawmakers would continue to act, with possible votes by the House today and the Senate tomorrow, if the nation's highest court does not explicitly order them to stop.

A block away, attorneys in two other cases marched into the Florida Supreme Court to file briefs in absentee ballot cases involving Martin and Seminole counties.

In written arguments, the Democrats said two judges erred Friday in ruling that 15,000 absentee votes in Seminole County and 10,000 others in Martin County should count even though Republicans were allowed to correct mistakes in some voters' absentee ballot applications.

In their papers, Republicans argued that Democrats were ''attempting to turn an innocent correction of a printing glitch into the commission of a crime.'' ''

While Democrats had sought to throw out all 10,000 Martin County absentee votes, they backed off their demands yesterday. They asked the state Supreme Court to strike only 673 Bush votes, still enough to overturn Bush's lead of fewer than 200 votes. In Seminole County, they asked to eliminate 15,000 votes. Gore is not a party to either suit.

The legislative hearings were conducted simultaneously in a state office building, with the House Select Committee on Election Certification, Accuracy, and Fairness hearing testimony on the second floor and the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee working two floors above.

Each committee was made up of four Republicans and three Democrats. The 120-member House and 40-member Senate are also dominated by Republicans.

Bruce Ackerman, a Yale University law professor, testified before both committees and warned that the Legislature was jeopardizing, not ensuring, Florida's electoral votes by contemplating an alternate slate.

If the Legislature creates a pro-Bush slate, and the court-ordered recounts create a second slate, Congress would have to pick which slate to count. With Congress nearly evenly divided, the debate would likely deadlock along party lines.

In that event, Ackerman said, Florida Governor Jeb Bush, brother of the Republican candidate, could send up a slate of electors, and Gore, presiding over the Senate, would have to decide whether to accept or reject it.

University of Minnesota law professor Michael Paulsen said the Legislature had the authority, as well as the responsibility, to approve its resolution.

''Here is where the power to name Florida's electors has been vested,'' Paulsen testified. ''The buck stops here.''

Material from wire services was used in this report.