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The Florida Recount: Blizzard of Legal Challenges Freezes Efforts to Reach Final Tally; Bush Campaign Heads to Federal Appeals Court

Aired November 15, 2000 - 12:00 p.m. ET


FRANK SESNO, CNN ANCHOR: A blizzard of legal challenges today freezing efforts in Florida to reach a final tally in the presidential election. On this, Day 8 without a president-elect in the United States, here are the latest developments.

Florida's secretary of state has filed an emergency petition with the state supreme court to halt all recounts. She also wants all lawsuits consolidated. Palm Beach County's hand recount is on hold. At issue: controversies over so-called dimpled and butterfly ballots. And there's a 2:00 p.m. deadline looming for counties to explain in writing why they believe hand recounts are necessary.

We head south now to heavily Democratic Palm Beach County where a judge has just issued a ruling on dimpled ballots, dimpled chads, as they're called, and whether they should be counted.

CNN's John Zarrella is in West Palm Beach -- John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Frank, lots of issues at stake here in Palm Beach County. We expected to be counting the ballots here. As you said, we did not start that counting of the ballots here in Palm Beach County today because this morning they came out and said, we've got to wait for some other issues to be resolved. One of them was the dimpled ballot issue. Another was the 2:00 p.m. deadline. Yet another was the fact that they had two opposing views yesterday on whether they could legally go ahead and do this hand recount of the entire county.

The secretary of state's office, Division of Elections, said they couldn't because it wasn't a machine problem or a software problem. The attorney general said they could. So they're waiting for the state supreme court to do that. The legal advice from the county attorney was, let's just hold off and wait until we can make some sense out of this before we start everything. And clearly, clearly, the board, the canvassing board, as expressed by Judge Charles Burton, is very frustrated.


JUDGE CHARLES BURTON, PALM BEACH COUNTY CANVASSING BOARD: I think in the history of all our lives, you will never see more legal maneuvering by lawyers for everybody that you've seen here. We are asking that you be patient a little longer, and we're hoping to keep you in place. I mean, we are trying to get updates as quick as we can as to when the supreme court may rule.


ZARRELLA: That, of course, was the judge talking to the election workers who are supposed to be counting, but they're just sitting and waiting.

One of the issues has been resolved: the dimpled ballots. A judge in circuit court, just not -- just a few blocks away from us here, decided just a few moments ago that he wasn't going to make a decision on whether you can count dimpled ballots, that it is up to the canvassing board.


JUDGE JORGE LABARGA, PALM BEACH COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT: ... has the discretion to utilize whatever methodology it deems proper to determine the true intention of the voter and should not be restricted in that task. To that end, the present policy of a per se exclusion of any ballot that doesn't have a partially punched or hanging chad is not in compliance with the intention of the law. Accordingly, the canvassing board has the discretion to consider those ballots and accept them or reject them. And that basically is my order, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you. And I obviously will issue a written order that will follow what I just said.


ZARRELLA: Now, the canvassing board, based on a 1990 legal decision, had said during the recount of the sample precincts last weekend they weren't going to be counting those dimpled ballots. So apparently that will stand. At least that issue for the canvassing board here in West Palm Beach in Palm Beach County is resolved -- Frank.

SESNO: John Zarrella, thanks.

The prize, of course, at the end of this long and pot-holed road is Florida's 25 electoral votes. Texas Gov. George W. Bush holds a 300-vote edge in the popular vote over Al Gore right now in Florida. An unknown number of Florida's overseas absentee ballots will be counted on Saturday.

CNN national correspondent Mike Boettcher is in the capital, Tallahassee -- Mike.

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Frank, we finally have something that both Democrat and Republican lawyers and representatives can agree on. They both have agreed this morning that all of the 11-plus lawsuits in local counties around this state should be consolidated by the supreme court and heard in a trial court here in Tallahassee, the Leon County Circuit Court.

Now, this morning, Secretary of State Harris petitioned the court to make that ruling. Just a few minutes ago, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who represents Vice President Gore, said he agreed with that. Here is the former secretary of state.


WARREN CHRISTOPHER, GORE CAMPAIGN OBSERVER: Sending the cases to a trial court here in Tallahassee County will be asking the supreme court of Florida itself to resolve critical questions. Those questions are, first, whether the hand counts now ongoing are appropriate under Florida law, and if so, what is the deadline for their completion? Second, what are the standards for determining if a vote has, in fact, been cast and whether a countywide hand count is justified and warranted.


BOETTCHER: In the secretary of state's petition, she said it should be done because it could result in an unpredictable amount, "variety of results, theories, legal rulings and procedures" that would just muddle everything. And she said also, without question, the court must make it clear that the election of the president and vice president is "not a matter of local pleasure."

Now, we have just learned a few minutes ago that the campaign of Gov. Bush has asked to join in this lawsuit. They have filed a petition here with the supreme court, so they have asked to be a party of this. We assume that there might be other parties as well. The court has not decided yet if they're going to hear this or when.

One thing we probably should ask is, who sits back there? Well, there are seven justices. And Florida has a reputation for probably one of the most streamlined and impartial supreme courts in the country. They have a system they're proud of in selecting this. It's done by a judicial nominating commission, which is selected by the governor. They pick three candidates and then the governor picks one of those three candidates to serve. They have six-year terms. And after six years, it is -- the name on the ballot, should we keep this person? It's called a merit ballot. And they don't run for election, don't have to campaign, don't have to raise money -- Frank.

SESNO: Mike, very, very quickly on what the secretary of state is asking of the court to stop these hand counts, it's to stop the hand counts until such time as they justify their desire to proceed, right? She's not putting the red light up totally?

BOETTCHER: Yes, correctly. She is saying that until I have time, until 2:00 when this deadline comes and I review their responses to my request, I want this hand count held up. That's what she's asking the court to do specifically.

SESNO: Of course, no indication as to how she would rule at that time with that petition to proceed. Mike Boettcher, thanks very much.

Let's go over to Susan Candiotti now. She joins us on the phone, focusing on the decision by Broward County to go ahead with a full manual recount. Susan, why the Broward County decision? because it's changed. And what's happening there now?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, it's been a stunning reversal of this earlier position on Monday. So now the Broward County Canvassing Board has indeed decided to do a full hand recount because, in the words of the three-member panel, quote, "the facts have changed." They are saying this in view of the opinion rendered the other day by Attorney General Bob Butterworth just yesterday that, indeed, the counties can recount manually if they so choose, which differs from what the secretary of state, Harris, had to say about that.

And the board here is also recognizing a court ruling from a county -- a circuit court judge here in Broward County yesterday who told the panel that they do not necessarily have to observe a 5:00 deadline by today, that they could go ahead and recount if they chose to do so. So, in fact, that's what they're going to do.

The panel members here are saying that indeed there was a machine error involved, not voter error, in their view, in the view of the majority of this three-member panel, and that after checking, indeed, a few precincts yesterday, just 1 percent of all the precincts, that Vice President Gore picked up four more votes. And so the panel says that when you add it all up, if you did a complete hand recount, in their view, this could affect the outcome of the election. So that is what their main argument is.

This is over the objection of the sole Republican member of the panel, who is the supervisor of elections. She maintains that the machines here in this county have indeed been accurate and that there was voter error involved.

Now, they are going to proceed, they say. As of this hour they are planning to go ahead with this count as of 2:00 this afternoon. Current estimates is that a full recount would take about four and a half days, more or less. That would be working 10 hours a day. And remember they also have these overseas ballots to work with as well. In the words of one of the panel members, "We are being guided by the law, not by how we feel," end quote, despite what others may think about that -- Frank.

SESNO: Susan Candiotti.

The Florida controversy is spilling well north, heading right up to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta today. That's where the Bush campaign and others are taking arguments to stop the Florida recounts.

CNN national correspondent Bob Franken is standing by at the federal courthouse with developments there -- Bob.

BOB FRANKEN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Frank, there are not one now, but two Florida lawsuits that have been rejected in the Florida -- two different courts in Florida: one in the Miami area and one in the Orlando area, both filed by people friendly to George W. Bush who want the hand recounts stopped, both turned down by the federal district judges.

The Orlando case, the one that was rejected last night, has now been filed here in the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, which covers Florida among its various states. They are making the same arguments that were rejected in the lower courts, saying that there are constitutional questions involved, 14th Amendment questions involved, and a need for an emergency temporary restraining order to stop the recounts because there would be irreparable harm if, in fact, the recounts went on.

Those arguments were rejected in the lower court level. They have now been brought to the this appeals court level. The main contention that they make is that this belongs in the federal court system because there are constitutional questions involved.

The appeals court has not indicated yet when they will hear either of these two appeals, except that a clerk says it is not at all certain there will be any sort of movement on it today, which of course would fly in the face of the request from the plaintiffs that this is an emergency matter.

So things are on hold right now, but there are now not one but two Florida appeals at the appeal's court level in the federal court system.

SESNO: Bob Franken, thanks.



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