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The Florida Recount: Sunshine State Still Mired in Indecision Despite Pivotal Court Rulings; Overseas Voters Could Decide Election

Aired November 15, 2000 - 1:01 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: Deadlines, delays and dimpled chads today. Election Day plus eight finds Florida still mired in indecision, with pivotal court decisions handed down, pending or possible in three cities.

Now here's the latest: The Gore campaign today urged that all legal actions statewide be consolidated in the state supreme court. For her part, Florida's secretary of state wants all the suits funneled through a trial court in Tallahassee. She also wants the supreme court to block manual recounts.

That said, a recount is pending in Palm Beach County, where a judge today ruled local officials may count ballots that weren't completely punched, the so-called "dimpled chads." They're also doing a hand recount in Broward County after a surprise change of heart by election officials there.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, all this comes almost one full day after the secretary of state's deadline for receiving vote counts from all Florida counties. All counties did submit figures, leaving George W. Bush ahead by 300 votes out of 6 million cast.

Another deadline looms about one hour from now for counties that want to submit amended figures to explain why the state should accept them.

We have extensive live coverage, beginning with CNN's Mike Boettcher in Tallahassee -- Mike.

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Natalie, I'm standing right here because it's the midway point in the 100-meter dash for lawyers going from the state capital over there running to the supreme court to file papers. And I can just kind of reach my hand out and grab the legal baton and read it to you at that time because it's been very busy going back and forth.

Where do we start? Well, let's go with that deadline at 2:00. In one hour, the counties -- the three counties in the state of Florida which are conducting or are considering conducting hand counts must give explanations to the secretary of state at her request, explaining why they need more time, why they are recounting, and why they can file amended requests to change their vote totals. Yesterday, as you know, yesterday evening, all of the certified totals where brought in, giving Gov. Bush about a 300-vote lead. They're asking to keep counting. The secretary of state wants to know why. And after she receives that, she can then say, yes, go ahead, or decline and say, no, she's not going to accept that.

At the same time in the supreme court behind me, there have been many different motions filed today. First, by Secretary of State Katherine Harris, she asked that the 11 or so pending lawsuits in various counties around Florida dealing with the election issue be considered by a circuit court, the Leon County Circuit Court here in Tallahassee, Florida so there's less confusion. The Democrats say they like that idea, except they want it consolidated in the supreme court. They will file a motion in about one hour.

Earlier today, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who is a supporter and a spokesman for the Gore camp, talked about that Democrat hope that all of these can be consolidated. Here is Secretary Christopher.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WARREN CHRISTOPHER, OBSERVER FOR GORE CAMPAIGN: Instead of sending the cases to a trial court here in Tallahassee County, we'll 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?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOETTCHER: The secretary of state has also asked the state supreme court here to stop that hand count. That's also part of her petition. The Democrats disagree with that -- Natalie.

ALLEN: So we have the secretary of state and the Democrats filing with the state supreme court. Has the supreme court convened? Are they working on any of these matters?

BOETTCHER: Well, they're certainly looking at it. We know that. They haven't decided whether they're going to hear the matters, and I'd hate to assume what they're going to do, but all those papers are there.

Plus, we've just learned another lawsuit has been filed, a petition been filed by the attorney general here, a Democrat, who is the Gore co-chairman for his campaign in Florida. He's asking that the Palm County lawsuit in which Palm County -- Palm Beach County sued both the secretary of state here and the attorney general because they gave conflicting opinions about whether a hand count can continue, he's asked that that lawsuit be consolidated into this -- these other suits before the supreme court and that they consider this part of that big pot mixing with all these lawsuits, Natalie.

ALLEN: Whew! That legal baton just gets heavier and heavier.

BOETTCHER: It does, but I'm getting really good at grabbing it right now.

ALLEN: I bet you are, Mike Boettcher. We need you. Hang in there. Thanks you so much. We'll be in touch.

In Broward County, election officials reversed course and granted a request by the Gore campaign for a countywide manual recount. Broward is heavily Democratic and the initial count heavily favored the vice president. Miami-Dade County did a manual recheck of three sample precincts, but then decided not to go further. The sample recount netted Gore six additional votes.

WATERS: Now over to Palm Beach County where a judge this morning affirmed the wide discretion of local canvassers, but the so-called "butterfly ballot case" still is up in the air. The good news: no new judges recused themselves today.

Let's check in with CNN's Mark Potter keeping watch over all of this in West Palm -- Mark.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Lou, we've had the same judge all day long, unlike yesterday where we lost five like that.

Judge Labarga is the judge we're talking about. He had a busy morning here at the Palm Beach County Courthouse, and he did make an important ruling involving the canvassing board here in Palm Beach County. He said that the canvassing board, when they do their manual recount, must consider even the marginal ballots. Not only must they consider the ballots that were punched properly or partially punched, they must also consider the ballots where there was a mark on the ballot, a so-called dimple. They cannot just throw those out categorically, they have to take them into consideration as well. They have to do all they can to try to determine the will of the voter. And this is a victory for the Democrats who asked the judge to make this ruling.

The judge also said that, on Friday morning at 9:30, he will hold a hearing on the question of whether there should be a new election here in Palm Beach County, a new presidential election. And the reason that he is considering that is that a number of citizens here in the county have filed lawsuits complaining about the confusion over the ballot, and they say that the only remedy that they can think of is to have a new election.

In talking to the lawyers, the judge suggested some concern over whether it would indeed be legal to do that, but he is leaving it up to the lawyers to bring all the case law together for a discussion about that at 9:30, again, Friday morning here at the Palm Beach County Courthouse.

We do know that there is a big argument over this ballot. We've been hearing it for days: 19,000 votes were thrown out because they were double-punched. And lawyer whose brought suit here say that they have evidence that the ballot confusion cost Al Gore thousands of votes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID KRATHEN, PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY: We are very pleased with the outcome of this morning's proceedings. We're also very pleased that the court will -- is inclined to take the testimony of our world- class experts with respect to the scientific methodology and the analysis of the vote that occurred in Palm Beach County that clearly, unequivocally shows within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty that Al Gore should have received at least an additional 11,600 votes from the ballots that were cast in Palm Beach County and that have not been counted in his favor.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

POTTER: Now, the lawyers are also saying that Al Gore would have picked up another 2,000 votes that they say were mistakenly cast for Pat Buchanan. When asked how they know that, though, they say that they have their experts who have done statistical analyses of the ballots, and they claim that we will hear from them in court in due course if Judge Labarga allows it.

And lastly, the lawyers are saying that if there is a full manual recount, if it's all accepted by the secretary of state and Al Gore wins the state, then they will then drop their call for a new election in Palm Beach County because they say they predict that Al Gore would win that too by a wide margin and would take the state.

Lou, back to you.

WATERS: Mark, back to that dimple, if we could. I'm curious to know because I would imagine the chattering class will be talking about this this evening. The arguments against allowing this dimpled ballot to be counted, what were they?

POTTER: Well, the only argument against allowing it is that you don't really -- if you have a dimple, you don't really know what the voter intended. There was an argument raised by one of the lawyers that if you -- a voter might have started to punch a hole and then changed his or her mind. That's the only argument against it that we've heard.

And I guess the primary broad argument is the uncertainty. That leaves it up to the discretion of the vote counters. And those who are against that procedure say that that's a little dangerous. If you have a hole that's punched or a hole that's partially punched, that's pretty clear what the intent is. When you get into analysis, you get into the human aspect of deciding that, then you get into areas that some people, particularly Republicans, are concerned about. And the canvassing board is concerned about that, too. They weren't going to do it and now the judge has said, no, you have to take that into consideration -- Lou.

WATERS: All right, Mark Potter covering us in West Palm.

Natalie, what's next? ALLEN: One can only hope the absentee ballots were very clear because they're coming in and about to be counted. That's Friday has a deadline for those to be counted and postal workers are rushing to get the military absentee ballots into the hands of Florida election officials. Ballots are separated from other military mail at a postal center near Miami International Airport. Those destined for counties in southern Florida are being delivered the same day. Ballots for northern Florida counties are delivered the next day.

Florida election supervisors mailed more than 19,000 overseas ballots. Thousands already are returned and counted. The votes of Americans living abroad seldom get this much attention.

CNN's Jim Bittermann reports that, for many Americans voting overseas, this election has been quite an experience.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Election after election, Americans voting from abroad have gathered in remote, if sometimes elegant, surroundings to watch from afar as their countrymen back home determined who their leader would be. But this time, their mail-in ballots, often ignored in the past, are crucial, because businessmen or servicemen, students or retirees, Floridians overseas may well decide the election.

A businessman on a French sabbatical:

CHARLES EDEL, BUSH VOTER FROM TAMPA: For the first time in my 20-some-odd years of voting, I've actually felt where my vote could make a difference.

BITTERMANN: A student at the American University of Paris.

VIVIAN MEDINA, GORE VOTER FROM MIAMI: A lot of people made fun of me just because I'm here abroad that my vote doesn't really count and that they only take into consideration the local votes. And I said, well, you never know. You never know if my vote is going to count. And guess what? They're wrong.

BITTERMANN: And some say conventional wisdom could be wrong about something else: that expatriates tend to vote Republican.

JOE SMALLHOOVER, CHAIR, DEMOCRATS ABROAD: If I believed that, I wouldn't have spent the last year actively campaigning for Al Gore and Joe Lieberman. We believe that, in fact, the overseas population is pretty much a mirror image of the population back home in the United States.

BITTERMANN: Democrats argue that traditional voting patterns were different this election for any number of reasons.

(on camera): The military population overseas has been in steady decline, to the point where one American in 15 who lives abroad is in the services. What's more, while the voter turnout overseas is often low, this year there was much interest in the campaign and much campaigning by both Democrats and Republicans abroad to get out the vote.

(voice-over): Republicans do not disagree with that but point to their polling data.

ROBERT PINGEON, REPUBLICANS ABROAD FRANCE: Our organization in Washington, Republicans Abroad, has put out a press release estimating that 61 percent of overseas Americans that voted will vote Republican this time.

BITTERMANN: But no matter what the outcome of the vote, expatriates believe this election has raised their profile in Washington.

TOM ROSE, ASSN. AMER. RESIDENT OVERSEAS: I hope, on the other hand, that this celebrity will have an effect that will go beyond current events in the sense that it should emphasize the numbers and the importance in some of the roles of Americans overseas.

BITTERMANN: So, while watching from afar as their nation divides may not be a pretty sight, it may ultimately have its advantages for those Americans who live and work abroad.

Jim Bittermann, CNN, Paris.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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