Perhaps this historic election deserved nothing less. The Florida Supreme Court, by an all-too-appropriate 4-3 vote, has thrown open Pandora's Boxes all across the state of Florida by ordering manual recounts of undervotes "in all counties that have not already undergone them."
It has set a Florida legislature-derived standard for those counts where the "intent of the voter" is evident that is not only subjective but more stringent than the all-vote manual counts in Volusia and Broward counties that cut George W. Bush's lead in half. It has appointed the very judge it rebuffed "in part" with Friday's ruling N. Sanders Sauls to do the very job he couldn't bring himself to do. (Sauls immediately recused himself.)
And it has very likely brought us face to face with an unimaginably divisive January.
Herewith, a guide to what all the players are likely to be up to.
The Gore camp
Tonight, Al Gore, his surrogates not to mention all the Democrats who must have been ready Friday to call for his concession will react to his latest stay of execution with restrained elation and a brand-new plea: Let the counts finish, it won't be long. But even if the counts now ordered survive an instantly filed injunction/appeal by the Bush team up the stairs to the U.S. Supreme Court, can the approximately 180,000 undervotes across the state of Florida be dusted off, sifted through and tallied by Dec. 12?
Which leads us to the Florida legislature
Republicans in the Florida legislature have not adapted to the new landscape yet. They've promised to name their own slate of electors on Wednesday if finality does not arrive to this never-final affair, and they haven't changed their schedule yet. But they may have a few days to play with: State Senate leader John McKay insisted this week that his experts had told him the 16th, not the 12th, was the true brick wall for the naming of Florida's electors. But today Republican state senator Daniel Webster pegged Wednesday again: If there is no finality, he said, we will bring finality on the 13th.
The U.S. Congress
If the Florida Republicans name a Republican slate, and the courts count up a Gore win and order a Democratic slate, then its on to the U.S. Congress on Jan. 6, two weeks before the inauguration. The House and Senate would each have the opportunity to choose its own slate, with the House's narrow GOP majority choosing Bush.
The new Senate, of course, is split 50-50. And Al Gore still the vice president will cast the tying vote. Which splits the Senate from the House, and which throws the election of the president of the United States back to Florida's chief executive officer: Jeb Bush.
And all hell breaks loose.
As the counters assemble across Florida and Judge Sauls rubs his temples in anguish, both Gore and Bush have preemptive strikes to make. Gore has already prepared a legal and public-relations assault on the Florida legislature in general and Jeb Bush in particular. Saturday he releases the hounds.
And Bush's legal team has already requested an emergency injunction against the count while they march the case straight back to the highest court in the land. The U.S. Supremes, acting hesitantly, have already "vacated" one of the Florida high court's rulings, finding that it needed to be clarified. How will they look at this sharply divided ruling? They can end this with one ruling, or decide that their Florida brethren finally got it right. Or lock their chamber door and let the counters sort it out.
Solomon or Nero?
A statewide undervote count with a vote-by-vote standard, one more like Palm Beach than Broward, might just be as Solomonic as we get these days. It may not favor Al Gore as much as he thinks, but for him it sure beats losing. It may not endanger George W. Bush as much as he thinks, but for him it sure doesn't top winning. If the Supreme Court stays out of this, Al Gore's quest will be George W. Bush's too a trench war between counters, between operatives, between politicians of high office and low.
If the U.S. Supreme Court stays out of this, we may be able to say good-bye to the lawyers as well. For 31 days they have argued the law, the Constitution, the fine points and the big pictures, trundling America along on the path to constitutional chaos.
But it'll be the politicians who get to take us the rest of the way.