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Election 2000: Florida Secretary of State Asks Court to Take Over Election-Related Lawsuits; Bush, Gore Campaigns Remain Divided on Recounts

Aired November 15, 2000 - 9:00 a.m. ET

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

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: This morning, Florida's secretary of state asked the Florida Supreme Court to stop all manual vote counts and to take over all lawsuits related to the election.

Meanwhile, Katherine Harris has certified vote totals submitted by yesterday's 5:00 p.m. deadline. George W. Bush leads Al Gore by 300 votes in this latest statewide tally, but those numbers are not final. Absentee ballots from overseas that are received by Friday must still be counted.

STEPHEN FRAZIER, CNN ANCHOR: In her emergency petition to the Florida Supreme Court, Secretary of State Harris argued that the flood of election lawsuits will produce, in her words, "an unpredictable variety of results." You try saying that fast.

So CNN's Bill Hemmer is joining us live from Tallahassee with more details on what might be predictable about all this.

Bill, good morning.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Stephen, good morning to you from Tallahassee. Just to update you once again, in the past hour, we did receive word that Katherine Harris will try and move everything involving the legal matters of this election in Florida to the state supreme court.

Now, what does that entail, what does that involve, in which direction does that take the election for Florida?

Well, at this point, we simply don't know. We talked with Ken Gross about an hour ago, our legal analyst up in Washington, D.C. He indicated that the state supreme court does not necessarily have to take up this offer from the secretary of state. That's an outstanding issue right now. No conclusive answers in just yet, but CNN's Mike Boettcher stationed over at the state supreme court building. We're going to check in with him live in just a bit. It's just over my right-hand shoulder on the other side of the administrative offices here on the capitol grounds. That's the first thing to keep track of now on this Wednesday morning.

The second thing is this looming deadline set for 2:00 Eastern time, about five hours from now. Last night, the secretary of state, Katherine Harris, did say that all counties that want to continue recounts in different parts of Florida have to file a letter of justification or a letter of discretion with the secretary of state's office by 2:00 Eastern time listing and telling why indeed that county must continue a recount.

Which counties will file? That's an open issue, too. But what we believe to be the case right now is that Palm Beach County indeed will file that letter of discretion because it appears, again, that county wants to continue a hand recount. At this point, they have not continued their counting in West Palm. We'll check in with John Zarrella shortly to find out the latest from there.

But, again, that's what we know right now in Tallahassee. All this coming to us again regarding the state supreme court within the past hour. We'll track it for you, let you know what we find out here in Florida -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: Thanks, Bill -- Daryn.

KAGAN: And now let's get reaction from both campaigns to these latest developments. CNN's Jonathan Karl is covering Vice President Al Gore in Washington, Jeanne Meserve all bundled up and ready to go in Austin, Texas covering Gov. George W. Bush. We'll start in Washington with Jonathan.

Good morning.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Daryn.

The Gore legal team right now as we speak down in Tallahassee looking at this 12-page document, this 12-page petition from Katherine Harris, the Florida secretary of State, to see how they will respond to it.

Their initial reaction is extremely skeptical, however. I talked to a spokesperson for the Gore campaign who said, look, if Katherine Harris really wants to expedite the legal matters here, if she really wants this to go in a quick fashion, what she should do is simply drop her objections to having hand recounts in these Florida counties. And they say that the legal complexities here have been created by Katherine Harris.

This is part of a very consistent public relations campaign on part of the Gore campaign to raise questions about Katherine Harris's objectivity here. They are continually pointing out that she is an ally of Jeb Bush, an ally of George W. Bush. They refer to her as the co-chairman of the Bush campaign in Florida and they are looking at this pleading, at this petition, in exactly that light: very skeptically. They think everything she's doing in this matter is politically motivated and as an effort to short circuit the hand vote counting in the counties that the Gore campaign has requested.

But the Gore campaign has had a number of setbacks here as they try to go forward. Obviously there was the decision yesterday by Judge Terry Lewis rejecting their request to have an injunction that would stop the Florida secretary of state from imposing her 5:00 p.m. deadline yesterday. That was rejected, although they did see a silver lining in that decision because that judge also said that the Florida secretary of state must at least consider letting the counties give amended results, to give results later that would be based on these hand counts. And they said -- the judge said that she cannot reject those results arbitrarily.

So the Gore campaign very much geared up for a legal challenge on that, but that legal challenge could very much be affected by this latest effort by the secretary of state to get all of this into Florida state Supreme Court -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Well, Jonathan, two moves by the secretary of state, one trying to get into the state supreme court. Also, as you mentioned, this 2:00 p.m. deadline for the counties to get in their written proposals about why they should be able to turn in amended returns. Nothing in state law about that 2:00 p.m. Deadline. Do they plan to fight that arbitrary number?

KARL: Well, they aren't going ahead right now with challenging that, but they have clearly made their displeasure with that 2:00 p.m. deadline known. They say there is nothing, as you said, in Florida law. In fact, there was nothing in the judge's decision about that. But right now they are focused on getting the counties that are going with the recounts to go ahead and file those petitions.

But, you know, that 2:00 p.m. deadline is very problematic for them on a number of fronts. One is that Miami-Dade County has now voted against doing a manual recount. That was one of the counties that the Gore campaign had requested a hand recount. Well, they voted against that. The Gore campaign wants to challenge that decision in court. Obviously it would be hard to get all that done by 2:00. And the other thing is, Broward County also hasn't made a final decision about whether or not they'll go through with the hand recount.

So that 2:00 p.m. deadline is very problematic for the Gore campaign. And should we pass that without these counties having made a final decision, you can be sure that the Gore campaign will challenge that in court as well.

KAGAN: And so, once again, much like yesterday, today is -- time is of the essence today. That's Jonathan Karl in Washington, D.C.

With the other side, here's Stephen.

FRAZIER: Daryn, as you heard Jonathan say, the door is still open, then, to some amended hand counting in some counties.

And for reaction to that from the Bush campaign, we'd like to turn to Jeanne Meserve now in Austin.

Jeanne, good morning again.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Stephen.

First let me say that the Bush campaign would reject the Democratic characterization of Katherine Harris as a partisan. They say she is an elected official carrying out the laws of Florida.

The bottom line for the Bush campaign has always been, let's stop the hand recounting of ballots. They have been very firm about that, their reason being they're afraid that those hand counting of ballots in Democratic areas will further narrow George Bush's margin of victory in Florida, which right now only stands at 300 votes.

Last night, communications director Karen Hughes spoke to reporters and said, in essence, enough is enough.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KAREN HUGHES, BUSH COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: The votes in Florida have now been counted and Gov. Bush won. They've been recounted and Gov. Bush won. The counties have now certified their votes to the secretary of state, and again Gov. Bush won. Yet it appears we now have a deadline that may not be respected as a deadline at all. Several selective counties in Florida, controlled by Democrats, have said they may continue a manual count.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MESERVE: This morning, the public offensive continued with a Bush lawyer arguing that to prolong this anymore simply benefits the Democrats.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BEN GINSBERG, ATTORNEY FOR BUSH CAMPAIGN: What would be fair would be to take the certified results from the secretary of state, add in the absentee ballots, which have until midnight Friday, and then you have a winner rather than this endless wrangling and keeping on opening up boxes and having partisan people play Carnac the Magnificent, holding up ballots to their head trying to squeeze out yet another Al Gore vote.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MESERVE: The Bush campaign was very heartened by that court ruling yesterday which said that ballots had to be certified by 5:00 p.m. Although the Democrats are saying that she can accept later hand counted ballots, the Bush forces say she wouldn't be required to do so, that there are valid grounds for her rejecting those, including the fact that those recounts may not have been done in a timely fashion or under uniform standards.

Meanwhile, the Bush campaign has filed papers in Atlanta to go forward with an appeal there, once again trying to get an injunction to stop the hand recounting of ballots altogether in the state of Florida -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: Jeanne, you covered the waterfront there, but the feeling I get is that there's still plenty of ambiguity.

MESERVE: No ambiguity from the Bush camp in what they're saying. What they are saying, there has been a vote, there has been a recount, now there is a certification, all we have to do is wait for those overseas ballots to come in and we have a decision in this election. They are absolutely unambiguous in their interpretation of the situation and in the law -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: Jeanne Meserve in Austin, Texas. Thank you, Jeanne -- Daryn.

KAGAN: As we told you at the top of the newscast, ground zero for the story today is the Florida state Supreme Court where the secretary of state is trying to get all lawsuits and also stop the hand recount, has taken her case to the Florida state Supreme Court.

And that's where we find our Mike Boettcher this morning.

Good morning, Mike.

MIKE BOETTCHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I'm here, Daryn. And we were talking this morning, if you considered all the lawsuits that are going on in all the counties around Florida, if we talked about those in every live shot, we'd take up the whole hour.

Basically, the secretary of state is saying the same thing in this petition, emergency petition, to the Florida Supreme Court. She wants all of those lawsuits consolidated here. And she also wants the manual recounts stopped.

Now, she says if they aren't consolidated, quote, "an unpredictable amount and variety of results, theories, legal rulings and procedures would result." She also says, "without question, the court must make it clear that the election of the president and the vice president is not a matter for local pleasure."

There is a second aspect to this, which is her attempt to stop the manual recounts in Palm Beach County, specifically, also Broward and Miami-Dade counties which are considering those and have votes back and forth on that. On that particular point she says, "Palm Beach, Dade and Broward must cease any attempt to manually recount ballots pending final resolution as to whether any basis exists to modify the certified results after the statutory deadline for submission of returns."

Now, translating that, she's saying she wants the supreme court to tell these counties not to do hand recounts until this 2:00 p.m. deadline which she set last night. Now, in that deadline, she asked the local counties to send her an explanation why she should delay the certification, why they should be able to send in late, amended counts after that 2:00 p.m. deadline. She's asking the supreme court, tell them to stop until we work all of this out.

Now, as Jonathan Karl reported earlier, the Democratic camp of lawyers are huddling, trying to figure how to respond to this. I just talked to one of the lawyers from the Bush camp. He's going off to a conference call. It's kind of caught everybody by surprise a little bit. The secretary of state filed a very extensive petition, though, many, many pages. They've been working on this all night long. The supreme court has yet to set a time to hear this, but it should come very quickly.

There is a stationary camera set up in that state supreme court. And the minute there is a hearing, it will go right up on a satellite and you should be able to see it live, Daryn.

KAGAN: Well, of course, once it does start, if we're able to do that, we will show our viewers here on CNN, both in the U.S. and around the world.

Mike, a quick question for you. Does it strike anybody down there as odd that it would be the secretary of state that would bring this lawsuit? Is this within her well-defined role?

BOETTCHER: Very much so, according to the Bush lawyer I spoke to. He says that under statute in Florida -- and this is his opinion -- that all of these sorts of lawsuits by Florida statute must be filed here in Leon County not in all of these various counties, because it would create a legal mess all over Florida.

So he says the statutes says that all of those must be filed here. That will be one of their arguments. What she's asking is now the supreme court, which is based in Leon County, hear all of this. And as secretary of state, as a member of the election canvassing board of Florida, the secretary of state has a right to ask the supreme court to do this.

So Daryn, that's where we stand.

KAGAN: All right, and I'm sure it will evolve.

That's Mike Boettcher in Leon County in Tallahassee bringing us the latest on that. And as Mike mentioned, quite unusual for cameras to be allowed in a state supreme court hearing. When it happens, though, we'll have those pictures for you and the hearing and the proceedings live here on CNN -- Stephen.

FRAZIER: As it happens, Daryn, Florida's most populous county, Miami-Dade, has put the hand recount issue to rest for now. Election officials there ruled out a countywide hand count of presidential ballots. The canvassing board voted 2-1 against it yesterday. Their decision came after a sample hand count of nearly 6,000 votes in three precincts produced only six extra votes for Gore, no change in Bush's total. That's so close to previous machine counts that the county election supervisor said a further hand count probably won't change the outcome.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID LEAHY, MIAMI-DADE ELECTION SUPERVISOR: My belief that if you counted every ballot by hand in the county, that you would get an equal, proportionate share of increase votes for both candidates. I just do not believe that anything I've seen warrants us to proceed either with an examination of the undercounted votes or a full manual recount. So my vote is no.

(END VIDEO CLIP) FRAZIER: But the Democratic Party is now considering legal action against Miami-Dade to force hand recounts.

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