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Election 2000: Palm Beach County, Florida Canvassing Board Votes 2-1 to Suspend Manual Recount

Aired November 14, 2000 - 8:11 a.m. ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We've had some breaking news out of West Palm Beach County, Florida, where a recount of some 431,000 ballots was supposed to begin today, but now county election's officials are reconsidering because it may be illegal.

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: As a matter of fact, we're still waiting on a ruling from a court there that could have the final say on this, whether to recount or not to recount.

LIN: That's right.

HARRIS: Let's go now to CNN's Bill Hemmer, who is standing by in Tallahassee. He's been following all of this -- Bill.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Leon, Carol, good morning again.

It's calm for the moment here in Tallahassee, but give it five minutes; it's likely to change here.

Right now, the official count 388; 388 votes in favor of George W. Bush-Al Gore statewide. That's where we stand, again, right now.

Last hour, I talked with the former Secretary of State Warren Christopher live on CNN. I asked him about this extension possibility that could be handed down in about two and a half hours from now. I asked him if they win that case, what's a reasonable extension to count the votes in Florida. Here's Warren Christopher now.


WARREN CHRISTOPHER, OBSERVER FOR THE GORE CAMPAIGN: Well, the ideal extension, of course, would be until all of the votes have been manually recounted in the four counties. That shouldn't take a long time. That's not an unreasonable time at all, and we hope the judge will allow that much time. As I have said before, Bill, it's a matter of days, not weeks or months. And so I would hope the judge would give that kind of an extension to allow the completion of the count in those four counties.


HEMMER: Meanwhile, the state of Florida says 5:00 later today is the deadline for all counties to have their votes certified here in the state of Florida.

Ted Olson is an attorney for the Bush campaign. He's also here in Florida. I talked with him last hour about the current deadline that looms later today.


TED OLSON, BUSH CAMPAIGN ATTORNEY: I suspect that anybody would -- is going to appeal this decision. The statute says that the votes must be concluded by 5:00 p.m. today and they shall be counted. And if the results are not in, they shall be ignored. So the statute is very clear. There is no reasonable reason or reasonable extension of that period of time. The voters of Florida and the legislature of Florida have made it clear that there must be an end to this process and it's 5:00 p.m. today.


HEMMER: Meanwhile, in Palm Beach County, West Palm specifically, back there now live and the canvassing commission set to vote on the latest motion filed there. We'll listen.


JUDGE CHARLES BURTON, PALM BEACH COUNTY CANVASSING BOARD: The board will consider it, as it has all other written motions brought before it.

Mr. Wallace (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The request is just...

BURTON: Sir, the chair recognizes Mr. Wallace.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, members of the Canvassing Board...

BURTON: I can't hear you, Mr. Wallace.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't hear you at all.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mark Wallace on behalf of George Bush. The purpose of the Florida statutes is really, really, very clear. I've talked to the supervisor of elections, she's told me what the purpose of the statues are as well. The purpose of the statutes is to ensure that the most accurate count of the voters of Palm Beach County is recorded. We've been told over and over again that the most accurate count of the voters of Palm Beach County is a machine count. Only when there is an error in that machine that counts those ballots would you then go to the very subjective and potentially partisan manual recount where there is enormous uncertainty. That is a last-resort remedy.

The accurate mechanism is a machine recount. We have done that now three times. We would ask you, on behalf of everyone, that there's a deadline pending at 5:00 today. It is very important that the voters of Palm Beach County not have their votes disenfranchised, they be included in this election. Whatever machine recount is available today should be certified to the secretary of state's office so those 470-some-odd-thousand voters are included in this election.

Again, the most accurate count is the machine count. This is a last-resort remedy. The secretary of state, the chief elections officer, has spoken. And as instructed, you do not have a basis to manually recount and subject these ballots to the partisan and uncertain nature of divining a voters intent based upon small marks on a ballot. Given that, we ask you to ensure that the voters' count be certified today and they be included.

We look forward to hearing from you later on when the attorney general comes out with something. Thank you.

BURTON: All right, thank you, Mr. Wallace.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Your honor, a point of order. I have an inquiry.

BURTON: Is it brief?


BURTON: Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If the pending motion is considered by the board as a motion for reconsideration of its prior motion, I would note that it needs to be made by somebody who voted in favor of the pending motion. And a motion to suspend is a motion in the nature of a motion to reconsider, and therefore it has not been made by a member on the prevailing side.

BURTON: I don't believe it is a reconsideration.

All right, we are going to call the vote, and all those is favor, aye.


BURTON: All opposed?


BURTON: All right, the motion carries 2-1. I do think...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have the certification.

BURTON: I'm sorry?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We do have partial certification. You can do that.

BURTON: This is the partial certification we discussed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I thought we did vote to do that.

BURTON: Right, this is the partial.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right, that's correct. We have the paperwork right here so we can get that taken care of right now, everything but the presidential candidates will be certified.

BURTON: This is the certification of all other results.


BURTON: All right, so we will do that while we're here. In addition, this board will reconvene. It will be in recess either until further -- well, until either further directives either through the attorney general's office or the circuit court. In any event, this board will reconvene at 4:00 this afternoon. And do you want to do that -- are we going to do that here or downtown?



BURTON: Here? See you all right here at 4:00 p.m.

HEMMER: We've been listening there to the Canvassing Commission in Palm Beach County, West Palm Beach, Florida right now as they consider how they'll go about a potential recount there.

John Zarrella with us now live down in West Palm.

John, take us through it. Clarify what's happening there and what we're listening to in your part of the state.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Boy, Bill, yet another major development here in West Palm Beach. The Canvassing Board has voted just a minute ago 2-1 to suspend the recount. They will not start the recount of 431,000-plus voters for now. The reason is they had asked for opinions both from the secretary of state, who is the director of the Division of Elections -- that's Katherine Harris, the Republican in Tallahassee -- and they asked for an opinion from the attorney general of Florida, who is Democrat. They've gotten an opinion from the director of elections, the secretary of state. Her opinion is that because there is no error in vote tabulating system, there's nothing wrong with the equipment, that they do not have the legal authority to do a hand recount of the entire county.

Now, again, they are still waiting for the opinion from the attorney general. Again, he's a Democrat, he may have a different opinion. They have not gotten that yet.

So Carol Roberts, a commissioner here, is basically charging that the secretary of state, in one of her comments just a minute ago, she said, do you mean that the secretary of state is telling us we can't recount the votes here in our county by hand? Not to put words in her mouth, but very, very strong words about her opinion on the secretary of state's action saying they can't do it. So they did vote 2-1. They have also asked that the -- and what happened was that the county attorney came up and said, that's right, you do not have the legal authority to go ahead and proceed with this recount. So the judge, Judge Charles Burton, voted against it.

Here comes -- I don't know if we'll be able to get anyone in here for an interview. I guess perhaps in a few minutes we will. But right now, we've got Carol Roberts coming over. Let me bring in Commissioner Roberts.

And Commissioner, you're on the air with CNN right now. You must be absolutely -- what, shocked by what's happened? What's your opinion on what the secretary of state has done?

CAROL ROBERTS, PALM BEACH COUNTY CANVASSING BOARD: I think what the secretary of state has done is to deny the rights of the people of Palm Beach County to have their vote count. I think it's very clear that we are not talking about a flaw in the machinery, we're talking about the ability of the machinery to pick up legally constituted votes which a hand count would do. And according to the secretary of state, that is something we will not have the opportunity to do. The secretary of state seems to feel that the people of Palm Beach County don't deserve to have their vote count, and I'm very sorry about that.

ZARRELLA: Thank you, Commissioner.

Obviously, you could tell, extremely distraught, upset Commissioner Carol Roberts on the Canvassing Board. She is a Democrat and she very much wanted this vote to go one here in Palm Beach County. They are still party to the lawsuit that's going on in Leon County to extend the deadline for the manual recounts, but they are now told, you don't have the authority to do it here in Palm Beach County.

You heard her remarks, Bill. She is now holding another press conference with other members of the media. But clearly, the next event 4:00 this afternoon as they wait for an opinion from the attorney general of Florida. And if that is a differing opinion from the opinion they got from the secretary of state, they are asking the county attorney to be prepared to go to circuit court, 15th Circuit Court in West Palm, to go to court to seek more legal advice and opinions on what they can do.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking -- Bill.

HEMMER: John, the plot indeed thickens there. Also, it should be pointed out the attorney general in Florida, Bob Butterworth, headed up the Gore campaign in this state in this past election. So, indeed, the twists and turns continue. But, again, what you're hearing now in Palm Beach is an argument of man versus machine, correct?

ZARRELLA: Yes, Bill. And let me bring in Judge Burton.

And, Judge, you had said a couple of days ago that you really wanted to wait before you got this process started. You wanted to wait until you got the legal opinions. Well, you got the legal opinion now. Are you satisfied with it?

BURTON: Well, I mean, in all candor, it's not a question of whether I'm satisfied or not, I just felt it was appropriate given the significant nature of the board's undertaking that we be -- have all the facts before you make that kind of the decision. And I'm certainly glad we had the opportunity to receive them.

ZARRELLA: In light of what has transpired, what is the likelihood that you will be able to carry out a revote here in the county now?

BURTON: Well, as I've indicated, and my concern had always been, that the testing of the equipment had shown everything was working fine, and I was concerned about our lawful authority to be able to do the recount. I mean, we have authorized the board, depending on the attorney general's opinion, to seek a circuit court opinion as to what our obligations are, but, you know, it has to be made clear. I mean, we serve as a neutral ministerial board, and I think our obligation is to clearly follow the legal opinion we've received.

ZARRELLA: Do you believe that you might get a differing opinion? Or do you have any idea -- why haven't you heard from the attorney general?

BURTON: I have no idea. I mean, these had been faxed out last evening. We were hoping we would get a quick opinion due to the, you know, the time constraints that we've been under. So we will just have to wait and see.

ZARRELLA: How does this impact -- or does it impact what you are doing in Tallahassee, joining the -- extending the deadline to do a recount by hand? But yet if you don't have the authority to do the recount, then obviously it's a dead issue, moot point.

BURTON: Exactly. You know, I'll be honest with you, there is not a whole lot of law on this issue. There have not been a whole lot of cases, and certainly none like this. So, you know, look, in many respects hopefully there will be guidance for future elections. And if we can get some case law out of that, that would be fine.

ZARRELLA: Are you -- what are you going to be doing now for the rest of the afternoon, then? You just -- are you going to -- what are you going to certify as a result from Palm Beach County?

BURTON: Well, what we just certified today is -- or this morning, was the results of all other elections, and we will meet again at 4:00. And assuming we have no other opinion, it would be in my intent that we certify the last results, including the presidential race. And that will certainly be my motion.

ZARRELLA: And that would be of that machine recount that you concluded, the second recount Saturday morning?

BURTON: That would be the second recount from the machine with the four precincts that were manually recounted.

ZARRELLA: So it would include those four manually recounted precincts?

BURTON: Absolutely.

ZARRELLA: Judge, thank you so much. Appreciate you taking some time with us.

Again, that was the opinion that Judge Charles Burton had a couple of days ago when they came out of that four-precinct recount, that he wanted to wait. But they did go ahead by 2-1 to decide to call for the full recount in Palm Beach County. And they were all set to begin that, and then the legal opinion from the secretary of state that says, you do not have the legal authority to do that because there is no problem with your voting equipment, with your counting machines. So, that said, the grounds to look at the votes, for other reasons, there is no grounds to do that -- Bill.

HEMMER: OK, John, keep us posted down there. I mentioned 20 minutes ago, wait five minutes, things may change. Indeed, they have again. No hand recount to begin, at this point anyway, in Palm Beach County.

Meanwhile here in Leon County where we are in Tallahassee, two hours away from a judge's decision, expected 10:30 a.m. Eastern time, as to whether or not the 5:00 deadline later today will be extended or not. We'll watch it all.

Back to Atlanta. Here's Leon again -- Leon.

HARRIS: All right, thanks, Bill. From Leon County to Leon Harris, how's that for a transition?

Let's go out now to Austin, Texas. Tony Clark has been standing by outside there, I guess the Bush camp there, to give us the word on what the Bush camp's reaction is this morning to these developments -- Tony.

TONY CLARK, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Leon, it's all happening so quickly we haven't had a chance to hear from Karen Hughes or Dan Bartlett, some of the traditional spokespeople for the Bush campaign. But this is the kind of news that they've been hoping for. The Bush campaign has argued all along that the machine counts, both the official count, the initial count and the recount, were the appropriate method to go. They have argued, and Karen Hughes repeated yesterday, that the manual count, the hand count is less accurate, as James Baker, the point man in Florida, has said, it is open to mischief. And so this is just the kind of news they are waiting for.

They are also eager for the announcement of whether or not that 5:00 deadline will hold. You know, yesterday they lost in federal court. They sought to have these manual counts brought to an end. They lost in federal court. But what we're seeing right now, Leon, is they may have lost in federal court, but they seem to be winning that battle along the way.

We're going to wait and try to hear from the campaign itself, but this should be good news to the Bush campaign. HARRIS: Well, do you expect them to keep the silence going until at least this afternoon and by 5:00 p.m. when the deadline is reached?

CLARK: Well, you know, we haven't seen Gov. Bush or heard from him since Saturday. He is still at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. In fact, the only comments that we had from the campaign yesterday were from Karen Hughes late in the afternoon. In fact, Leon, you know, for the past week as all this controversy has swirled, the press office here in Austin has been unusually quiet, deferring all of the comments, for the most part, to the attorneys in Florida. And so we're just -- we're hopeful. We would like to see, we expect to see Karen Hughes out here, hopefully sometime this morning, to get some reaction because -- and this is the kind of thing that I think we'll find that they're very pleased with.

HARRIS: All right, and perhaps they're formulating their statements right now. We'll see. We'll check in later on.

Tony Clark reporting live this morning from Austin -- Carol.

LIN: All right, well, let's go to Washington, D.C. to get some reaction from the Gore camp.

CNN's Jonathan Karl is standing by.

John, this must be a disappointment to the Gore campaign, the decision by Palm Beach County?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: A disappointment, surely, Carol, but not necessarily a surprise. Here's what the Gore campaign is saying. The Gore campaign is saying that Palm Beach County based this decision based on an erroneous opinion by the Florida secretary of state, Katharine Harris. They're saying that Katharine Harris in her advisory opinion that hand recounts would only be permissible if there was a mechanical problem with one of the machines is simply a wrong opinion.

This is exactly the situation we have going on in Broward County. Broward County, of course, last night voting to stop its hand recount, not to go forward with its hand recount. The Gore campaign going to court to challenge the situation in Broward County, not made a final decision on the situation in Palm Beach. But the situation in Broward, they are going forward and they are saying that Katharine Harris has issued a faulty opinion on this, and that the board voted -- voted in good faith, but voted based on a faulty opinion by the Florida secretary of state.

Also, Carol, the Florida secretary of state, as we've pointed out, is Katharine Harris, a Republican and ally of George W. Bush. The Gore campaign is ratcheting up its criticism of Katharine Harris today. You noticed Warren Christopher this morning starting to refer to Katharine Harris not only as the Florida secretary of state, but also calling her in the same breath the co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Florida, which, by the way, is true -- Carol.

LIN: So, John, does that -- does it sound like to you, then, that part of their strategy is to not only ratchet up the rhetoric against Katharine Harris, but also to do something else, I don't know, what they could do legally in terms of taking her out of the process somehow?

KARL: Well, clearly they believe that she should have done exactly what Gov. Jeb Bush did, which was recuse himself from this process. She did not do that. It's unclear if they would have any legal recourse to force her to do such a thing. But what they will do is go to court to challenge her opinion on this because they believe she's wrong on this. And that, indeed, is what we've seen, of course, this decision we're waiting for in Leon County, in Tallahassee, this decision to come down at 10:30 questioning the other part of what she did yesterday, which is saying that she's going to enforce this 5:00 deadline today for certifying all results.

LIN: But even if Palm Beach County decided to start counting their votes, more than 400,000 votes, they themselves were saying that it was going to take at least six days, which would have gone beyond the end of the week, which is when all the votes were to be certified. So how does the math add up? They wouldn't be able to even count all of these ballots in time for all of the ballots to be certified?

KARL: Well, the position of the Gore legal team is that what the Florida secretary of state should do is provide an extension of that deadline until all hand recounting is done. They're saying that what is important here is to get the count right, to get it concluded, and deadlines are not the primary issue. The vice president said this himself, essentially, not talking about the specifics of the case. But yesterday when he spoke, he was saying what is important here is not an arbitrary time limit, but getting the count right. And that's what the Gore campaign is going to stick to.

LIN: OK, we'll see if the counting will even begin. Thank you very much, Jonathan Karl, reporting from Washington -- Leon.

HARRIS: All right, let's get some more perspective on this. We're joined now on the telephone by David Cardwell, who was formerly with the Florida Elections Committee. He's now working as an analyst for CNN.

Mr. Cardwell, can you tell us what you make of what we've seen happen this morning in that meeting of the canvassing board there in Palm Beach County?

DAVID CARDWELL, FMR. FLORIDA STATE ELECTIONS DIR.: Well, I was surprised by the opinion from the secretary of state's office that said a manual recount is limited to a problem with the voting equipment. There is a case out of Broward County, the Hogan (ph) decision, which said that whether to do a manual recount or not rests with the discretion of the canvassing board. And historically in Florida, there's been a lot of deference given to canvassing boards to decide whether they should or should not do a recount and the form of the recount.

HARRIS: That's interesting because what we're seeing here is both sides in this case, be it the state attorney general -- I'm sorry, the secretary of state and the canvassing committee saying that each other -- they're taking each other's word for this, then.

CARDWELL: Yes, and when a canvassing board decides that, for whatever reason, that they think there are good grounds to recount the election, customarily that's been the end of that discussion. They go ahead and proceed with the recount.

Here, an opinion that concludes that there had to be some mechanical error, I just don't see that in the statutes. There is a provision in the statutes that says that, in the course of the recount the canvassing board determines that there are some problems with the equipment, they are to report that to the Department of State, but it doesn't to me seem to be limiting the basis for the recount to just machine malfunction.

HARRIS: Interesting. Let me ask you something else. And in your experience and in your view, then, do you think, then, perhaps that the secretary of state should also have recused herself in this case?

CARDWELL: Well, we've had secretary of states in the past that either were running for reelection or running for other office who took the position that they would not be directly involved day to day in the affairs of the Division of Elections, pretty much left the director of the division to be autonomous. Whether or not Secretary Harris should have recused herself from this election because of her role in the campaign I think is a much different situation than we've had before when the secretary of state was actually a candidate himself or herself.

HARRIS: All right, David Cardwell, we thank you very much for your analysis this morning. We'll be talking to you later on because this story is going to go on for some time.



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