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Breaking News

Legal Chaos Surrounds Florida Vote Recount

Aired November 15, 2000 - 2:00 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: Palm Beach County gets to count its own ballots its way, but will those votes be certified by Florida's secretary of state?

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: In Broward County this hour, they begin at the beginning. Almost 600,000 votes are going to be recounted by hand starting now.

WATERS: Florida stays in the middle of the biggest political poker game, winner-take-all, for the White House.

And we welcome our international to CNN TODAY. I'm LOU WATERS.

ALLEN: Another busy day here. Thanks for being with us. I'm Natalie Allen.

Another day of many developments. This is what we know this hour. Florida's Republican secretary of state and the Gore campaign have asked Florida's Supreme Court to step into the election 2000 thicket. Note this distinction: Gore wants the Supreme Court to take charge of every outstanding issue affecting the election. Katherine Harris, the secretary of state and the co-chair of the Bush campaign in Florida, wants the court to consolidate election cases in a Leon County circuit court in Tallahassee.

In her emergency petition today, Harris argued: "The court is confronted by a significant risk of forum shopping, inconsistent results and loss of control necessary for the fair administration of justice." Harris also asked the Florida Supreme Court to stop all manual recounts until it's determined if they are permissible. She gave counties conducting manual recounts until this hour to explain in writing why they need to do so. At least two counties, Palm Beach and Broward, will apparently meet that deadline.

WATERS: Before we check in with CNN correspondents across Florida, let's hit the main developments today in each of the state's battleground counties. Now, in Palm Beach County, a judge ruled today that election workers can count those dimpled ballots or so-called "pregnant" chad ballots in the manual recount. The county's ballot- by-ballot review of 431,000 votes still hasn't begun. And there's local political turmoil. Republicans accuse one of Palm Beach County's election officials of tampering with ballots in that recount.

Now, in Broward County, a full manual recount is getting under way about now. Officials there estimate it could take 4 1/2 days to complete the recount in Broward, and those are 10-hour days they're talking about. They plan to submit the supplemental numbers to the Florida secretary of state once the recount is finished.

Today's decision came after one of the canvassing board's two Democratic members reversed his earlier vote to forgo the full recount. The Gore campaign had argued for the full recount.

ALLEN: And in Miami-Dade County, the canvassing board has decided not to go forward with a manual recount of all ballots. This after a hand recount of just under 6,000 ballots in three overwhelmingly Democratic precincts resulted in six more votes for Gore. The Democratic Party is considering a lawsuit against the board to force a full recount.

Also going to court over the vote count is the Bush campaign. The Republicans have asked a federal appeals court here in Atlanta to stop any more hand counting of votes in Florida. And we've just received word the court will hear the case.

Depending on what an appeals court decides, this case could wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

WATERS: Of course, all of this in response to Florida's official but not final results. Those were announced last night. They show Governor George W. Bush still with the advantage over Vice President Al Gore by a razor-thin margin of 300 votes. That's a fraction of 1 percent of the Florida vote, and as you know by now, whoever takes Florida and its 25 electoral votes, that person will likely win the White House. That's what this is all about.

That's a broad brush of Florida today. Now, let's focus in on the specifics. First, the 2 o'clock Eastern deadline from the secretary of state and her request for the state supreme court to get involved in all of this.

National correspondent Mike Boettcher is keeping watch down in Tallahassee. How does it all stand right now, Mike?

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lou, we know that one county has met that deadline. That is Broward County. That have filed their petition with the secretary of state's office. They say they need the extra time, because -- quote -- "The board has concluded that the limited manual recounts to date indicates an error in the vote tabulation, which could affect the outcome of the election, requiring all manual recounts of ballots." They go on to say, "Based on these facts and circumstances, the board voted today to begin a full manual recount." The board expects to complete the recount by 5:00 p.m. on Monday.

They also say that because all of the numerous lawsuits that have been filed, that has held up their recounts, and a lot of those have been filed here and in other courts around the state of Florida. And that is why we're here in front of the Supreme Court.

The secretary of state, Katherine Harris, here, a Republican, has asked that all of these be consolidated in Leon County. She's gone -- which is the county we're in here. She has asked the Supreme Court to do that. We understand just a few minutes ago the Gore campaign has filed its own petition with the court, also asking that all of those suits be consolidated.

We don't know specifically what they say in their petition. We're waiting for a hard copy of that. But in an earlier press conference, they said they want all of these cases heard by the supreme court, not the local Leon County court.

Now, during a press conference earlier today, the representative of Vice President Gore here, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, could not be pinned down on a timeframe when the Democrats think this all would be finished. Here is Secretary of State Christopher.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WARREN CHRISTOPHER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Let the counts continue, we believe, with an understanding that the ultimate status will depend upon the decisions reached by the Florida Supreme Court, we hope in a rapid and timely way. If the Supreme Court rules against any of these counts or clarifies the law in some respects, then appropriate steps can be taken with respect to the hand counts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOETTCHER: So we're waiting to see what the Supreme Court does here. We're also waiting to see if Dade County and Palm Beach County, if they have met that 2:00 p.m. deadline. Bill Hemmer is inside the state capitol. He's going from office to office, trying to find the filings. So far, we haven't been able to determine if they have met that deadline. And there is a chance they might decide not to, to let everything go with the courts.

So, Lou, we'll keep you informed. Things are changing every few minutes.

WATERS: Yes, I guess that was the -- Warren Christopher's point, when he was asked if the Florida Supreme Court decides on all of this, will then you stop all the legal wrangling, and he essentially didn't have any answer for that.

BOETTCHER: Well, I think it's essentially determined on what they decide, and they are confident that they will get the rulings they want. They think -- and I think both sides, the only thing they do agree on is some sort of consolidation to speed this process up. By how many days I don't know and when will it all end we don't know. But I know the secretary of state here in this state, Katherine Harris, believes that after the certifications have been received, which they were last night, she rules on whether these counties can delay by amending it. And then we have the Friday deadline on the count of the overseas ballots, and then the final certification of all the numbers.

They want to get this thing wrapped up by Saturday morning. The Democrats say there's no way that can happen with all of the pending lawsuits and the recounts that they want to have done -- Lou.

WATERS: OK, Mike Boettcher, covering us in Tallahassee -- Natalie.

ALLEN: Well, dimpled and butterfly ballots received the attention of a Palm Beach County judge today. CNN's Mark Potter is in West Palm to explain all of this for us -- Mark.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, dimpled ballots and pregnant chads, those are the issues at hand today in the courthouse behind me, the Palm Beach County Courthouse. Jorge LaBarga, the Palm Beach circuit judge this morning, tried to sort it all out. And his ruling was that the canvassing board in this county must try to do all it can to determine the will of the voters while they are doing their manual ballot count.

What that means in practical terms is that they not only must count the ballots where there is a -- that were properly punched, but also those ballots that were partially punched. And they must at least take into consideration those ballots that have marks on them, the so-called "dimples" or "pregnant" chads, to see if they can determine from those the will of the voters. They cannot just throw those ballots out willy-nilly. They do have to at least take them into consideration. And that's a victory for the Democrats, who asked for such a ruling from the judge.

Now, on another matter, Judge LaBarga said that he will hold a hearing in this courthouse at 9:30 a.m. Friday to discuss the issue of whether there could be a new presidential election in Palm Beach County. Initially, he raised some doubts about that, but he said he wanted to hear from the lawyers then. And so they're going to study the case law and bring in all their paperwork and have argument before him Friday morning.

The reason they're doing is that a number of voters here in Palm Beach County have filed lawsuits asking for a new election, because they claim that they either voted for the wrong candidate or double- punched their ballots because of confusion over the ballot design. And the attorneys involved in the case say that because of that, their statistical analysis shows that Al Gore could have gained another 14 -- nearly 14,000 ballots in this county if the ballot had been done properly.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE BADEY, PLAINTIFFS' ATTORNEY: It's not about Gore or Bush, really, when it comes down to it. It comes down to whether the presidency retains the legitimacy that it needs to retain under our Constitution. And if all these people were disenfranchised in Palm Beach County, the presidency has no legitimacy. So that's bad for George Bush, it's bad for Al Gore.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

POTTER: Now, those lawyers who filed those lawsuits asking for a new election say they will drop that request if indeed the manual counts go through, if they're allowed by the secretary of state, and if Al Gore wins the state and, therefore, the national election. No need for a new election then: they figure he'd win that, too.

Natalie, back to you.

ALLEN: All right, Mark Potter, thanks.

And with that court ruling on dimpled ballots, does that mean Palm Beach County's hand recount will be under way?

A question for CNN's John Zarrella, who's also in West Palm Beach -- John.

JOHN ZARRELLA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Natalie, not yet. We're still waiting on the Florida Supreme Court to let us know here whether they can do the recount.

Now, what they did do about quarter to 2:00 local time here was Palm Beach County's canvassing board came out and they read us this letter, which is the letter that they sent, or were about to send, to the secretary of state, Katherine Harris. And that letter, of course, is the one with their reasoning why they want this recount.

And what they said in the letter was that because the machine count undercounted, undervote of 10,000. In other words, there were 10,000 that weren't apparently punched, at least according to the machine, for any presidential candidate. That coupled with the fact that when they did the manual limited precinct recount, the four precincts they recounted, Al Gore, the vice president, came up with a net gain of 19 votes.

So with those reasons in this letter, that's what they said to the secretary of state as their reasoning why they need to do a recount, because, they say, it could affect the outcome of the election.

Now, we've been on hold here all morning, all into the afternoon. Inside the offices behind me in the emergency operations center, it is very quiet there, the counters who were brought in just hanging around waiting to see when or if they'll be able to get started today.

Judge Charles Burton, who is the chairman of the canvassing commission, a while ago spoke to those folks inside and really expressed his frustration.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JUDGE CHARLES BURTON, PALM BEACH COUNTY CANVASSING BOARD: A manual recount of four precincts, which accounts for approximately 1 percent of the total votes cast in Palm Beach County, resulted in a difference in the total votes. The 4,695 ballots manually recounted in four precincts resulted in a total gain of 33 votes for Vice President Al Gore and 14 votes for Governor George W. Bush, which is a net gain of 19 votes for Vice President Al Gore. Clearly the results of the manual recount could effect the outcome of this very close presidential election if the manual recounts in the other precincts also vary in this degree from the machine counts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZARRELLA: That was the judge there describing to everyone out here and clarifying exactly all of their reasoning why they wanted to go ahead with that recount.

There was another controversy that brewed here right about that same time, and that was when the Republicans asked that Carol Roberts, who is on the canvassing board, disqualify herself. They claimed that Carol Roberts actually was fiddling with the ballots, actually changing ballots from pile to pile, and also that she was touching the chads instead of the corners of the ballots. And they said that she needed to disqualify herself, and if she wouldn't that the other two board members needed to vote that she do that. She would not recuse herself. The other board members said they weren't going to do it either, so she's still on the canvassing board.

And James Carol (ph), who represents the Republican Party here, in their efforts, he came out and strongly suggested that, based on these things, she would need to do that. And, again, Carol Roberts did not.

But everybody is on hold here still. No counting in Palm Beach County. They are still waiting because legal counsel has told them that they could be violating the law if they don't go ahead -- if they don't wait for the supreme court to give them some guidance as to what they can or cannot do.

This is John Zarrella reporting live from West Palm Beach -- Natalie.

ALLEN: All right, thanks John.

Now to Lou.

WATERS: And now to Broward County where CNN's Susan Candiotti is keeping watch over developments there.

And, Susan, this is the county that yesterday decided not to recount. Change of mind today. What's happening?

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they decided to change their mind because they said, after all, this is not a courtroom here; we are a board, after all, and we are entitled to change their mind. And besides, as one of the three-member panel said, the facts are changing, and so we are going to change our mind as well.

The recount hasn't begun yet, Lou, because, quite frankly, no one here is ready yet to begin. The counters, the so-called examiners are still arriving here, various representatives from both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party. And perhaps as importantly, the ballots have not yet arrived at this facility. The ballots are being transported from a secure location near the Broward County Courthouse several miles away to where we are reporting to you from. This is called the Broward County Emergency Operations Center, which normally is used whenever a hurricane is in the area, where emergency personnel normally operate. Now there are large tables set up here where the vote recount will be conducted.

The members of the canvassing board for Broward County have determined that they will use what they have always called the two- corner standard that will be met. That is to say that they have to find that the hole punched in each ballot has to have at least two corners punched out, and that must be agreed upon for that to be considered a valid vote.

The people here estimate that this process, which they call, of course, a "major undertaking," will take at least 4 1/2 days if they work 10-hour days. As soon as they are ready to begin, they will and plan on working until about 8:00 this evening, and thereafter from 8:00 in the morning till 6:00 each day until the job is complete. Of course, all of this could change depending on what happens with the Florida Supreme Court.

Again, this panel has said that they changed their mind, among other reasons, because they recognize that there is a legal dispute over whether they are able to continue a recount in this county. And even though they voted just the other day to stop the recount, they've decided now, because of -- also because of a ruling from a Broward County judge yesterday, that -- and he ruled that they could continue beyond a deadline that had been set for today. So they're using that as guidance that they are -- may continue this hand recount.

You'll recall that just the other day when they started a manual recount, they redid about 1 percent of the precincts here in Broward County and counted up four additional votes for Vice President Gore.

Now Democrats have been arguing that -- and the canvassing board agreed -- that a full recount might possibly affect the outcome of the election in one way or another, and that is why the board has decided to move on with this recount -- Lou.

WATERS: OK, Susan Candiotti covering us in Broward County from Fort Lauderdale.

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