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Attorney for Florida's Secretary of State Holds News Conference on 5:00 p.m. Deadline for Vote Certification

Aired November 14, 2000 - 3:02 p.m. ET


BOBBIE BATTISTA, HOST, CNN "TALKBACK LIVE": Hold on, Bill. We've got to interrupt you and throw to the secretary of state of Florida for this news conference.


DONNA BLANTON, FLORIDA SECRETARY OF STATE'S ATTORNEY: From the beginning, the secretary of state has acted in accordance with existing Florida law and statute. Her decisions have been motivated by a respect for these laws as enacted by the Florida legislature on behalf of the people of Florida.

The secretary is pleased with the decision by Judge Lewis today, but not surprised. The judge recognized that the law requires any county canvassing board to certify their returns by 5 today. The secretary expects all 67 county canvassing boards to do so.

But, as Judge Lewis indicated in his opinion, if any county canvassing board subsequently desires to amend their return, the secretary will evaluate that request on applicable facts and circumstances.

From this point forward, it is the intention of the secretary to preform her duties in connection with the certification of this election in the normal manner of any election for any office in the state of Florida. Therefore, the secretary continues to anticipate the final certification of Florida's presidential election after certification of the overseas ballots due on midnight Friday.

I'll be happy to take a few questions.

QUESTION: Right here. Right here.

QUESTION: Could you...



QUESTION: I've been working with you guys for a week now.

(LAUGHTER) How long do you feel that you have to consider taking these -- if someone has a hand count and brings it in? Up until Friday, is that the time? Do you think under the order you have to keep considering it?

BLANTON: I think what the order says is that the secretary will consider each situation based on the individual facts and circumstances of that situation. We anticipate the results being filed by 5 today by all the counties. If there are counties that do not do that, we'll consider the individual circumstances that are raised in that request. We don't, at the moment, know what those are.

QUESTION: This judge seems to have some put it in your discretion. It has been your -- the secretary's discretion before that Palm Beach, for example, should have their ballots in by 5. Should that be an indication of where the secretary's discretion is on this issue?

BLANTON: The law says and the judge upheld this in his order, that the county canvassing boards, their results must be in to the state by 5 today. That's what we've said all along and the judge upheld that.

He then said, if there are situations where they cannot get it in by 5 and they want to get it in later, it's then in her discretion to consider all the facts and circumstances surrounding that request that they be considered after the fact. And she'll certainly do that.


QUESTION: "Facts and circumstances," quote, unquote, don't mean anything to most people who are watching this. What specifically would cause the secretary of state to allow some manual ballots to come in? And do you still anticipate that on Saturday you'll know who won Florida?

BLANTON: We do anticipate at this time that we'll be able to certify the election after the overseas absentee ballots are in. Obviously, we can't predict -- this has been a very strange process, we've all been a part of. So we can't predict everything that might happen. But we're not going to speak to what facts or what circumstances would constitute her to exercise her discretion in a particular fashion, because, we don't know at the moment what counties may say to us after 5 today.

We anticipate they'll all get their results to us. If they don't, I'm sure they'll have an explanation as to why they cannot. And at that time, she'll evaluate each of those requests on their merits.

QUESTION: Is what you're saying essentially these counties may have perhaps until Friday to get their manual counts in, if the secretary deems that appropriate, but on Saturday, we're going to know who won the state?

BLANTON: We anticipate knowing on Saturday who won the state, when all the absentee ballots are in.

QUESTION: Should we take this as an understanding that she will consider her discretion to allow until Friday for the votes to come in, she will count those, and that there will be no abdication of discretion?

BLANTON: She anticipates them coming in by 5 today. And I want to be very clear about that. If they don't come in at 5 today, I assume the counties will come forward with a reason why they did not, and she will evaluate those reasons based on what the counties tell her.

But we anticipate that the counties will comply with the law and get the results in by 5 tonight.


QUESTION: Will she now consider them in a different way than she would have before the ruling? Before, she said it was ironclad, nothing after. Now, she seems to be saying, no ironclad.

BLANTON: I don't think so. I think what we've said all along is that she believes the legislature said what the law is about 5 on Tuesday, and that we had some discretion under the law to exercise. The judge agreed with that. So I think our position is essentially the same.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) something that she considers in her discretion? Is that something that she feels she's already addressed?

BLANTON: The manual recount, basically, is addressed in the statute. It's a provision that's up to the county canvassing board, not up to Secretary Harris.

STAFF: Thank you very much.

BATTISTA: All right, this was Donna Blanton, an attorney for Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, holding a news conference. Let's go quickly to Mark Potter in Tallahassee for some more breaking news, or West Palm rather. Mark, go ahead.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we're in West Palm. We just got a ruling from George Labragga (ph). He's the circuit judge here in Palm Beach. And he just said that the injunction that prohibited the canvassing board here, the elections board from certifying the results of the election has now been dissolved. He also said that a motion to transfer all these cases that have been gathering here in Palm Beach up to Tallahassee also is out. He three -- he denied that motion.

So the canvassing board is now free to certify the results of the election so far as required by the secretary of state. They have also announced, though, that there will be meeting at 4 o'clock to decide their next course of action. Of course, at the top of the list, will they continue that manual recount of the entire county? And an attorney for the canvassing board has said that they will be going to the Supreme Court of Florida for an advisory opinion of whether it's legally proper for them to continue that manual count. They've gotten conflicting opinions from the secretary of state's office and from the attorney general's office: Secretary of state says no, attorney general yes. They're feeling caught in the middle, so they're going to the Supreme Court for a ruling on that.

And the belief here is that they will be able to submit those results -- under the order from Judge Lewis in Tallahassee, they'll be able to submit those results from the manual count if indeed they go through with that after this certification today, and that will be argued at that point as to whether the secretary of state will accept those counts, you know, days from now. It will take many days to get that done. They will also, tomorrow, be dealing with another motion tomorrow morning from the Democratic Party asking a judge to order the Canvassing Board to conduct that manual count, and that will -- as I said, will be heard tomorrow, and we are not done with court here yet.

BATTISTA: I think our buddy Greta Van Susteren is right next to you, Mark. Am I correct? Our CNN legal analyst.

POTTER: She is.

BATTISTA: Greta, what the heck does all of this mean? I mean, what does this mean come 5:00? You know, Palm Beach was supposed to get their votes in by 5:00 like everybody else, but they had that injunction against them, which would seem like a reasonable excuse not to get them in and they'd be late. But now, what does all this mean?

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it does mean, Bobbie, that they must certify -- they must get those results to the secretary of state by 5:00, but there is a hitch -- you know, there has been a big hold-up here, and unless they put -- unless they give the secretary of state sort of the old results minus the manual count results they run the risk of being subjected to a fine. Under the statute, if the members of the Canvassing Board fail to meet their obligation to submit the results by 5:00, they are subject to $200 a day fine each, and the statute says that is a personal fine, they must pay it themselves.

So, my best guess -- and I underline guess, because this is so unusual that, you know, we try to figure out as best we can, but who can predict much of this -- but my best guess is at 5:00, Palm Beach County will submit a number to the secretary of state. I don't know what that number is, but if they don't, each one gets a fine, $200 a day.

BATTISTA: And the decision as to whether or not to -- if it is late, let's say, for example, is that decision in Katherine Harris', the secretary of state's hands alone, is it her decision to make?

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, you know, they'd almost be wiser to submit a number and correct it later by a manual recount, if they do a manual recount, because the statute provides that if they didn't submit it, they can be ignored. So, what they would be doing is disenfranchising a lot of members of Palm Beach County, and it's not clear that if they didn't submit a number by 5:00 today whether they could -- quote -- "correct it," because there really would be nothing to correct if they don't submit a number by 5:00.

So, probably the most prudent thing to do for the Canvassing Board is to submit a number by 5:00, the best number they have, and then do -- hope that they can do a manual recount to get whatever correct number it is, a number that may be in favor of Governor Bush, or may be in favor of Vice President Gore -- I don't know -- but if they want to correct any number they submit today, they would be in a much better position to do it and have it considered.

BATTISTA: All right, CNN's other legal analyst, Roger Cossack is also with us.

Roger, would you concur with what Greta just said?

ROGER COSSACK, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Of course. Listen, I don't want to get in any hot water with Greta. But the interesting thing about it is -- and I heard Greta sort of smiled as she said it -- is that $200-a-day fine that those election people are facing, and it has to be paid personally. Greta and I both know that when the money comes out of their own pocket that suddenly things get done.

But the issue really here is, is the one that the Gore campaign is really grappling with right now, do they try and grab on to what appears to be at least a little loophole in the decision that says that the secretary of state may accept future returns, perhaps corrected returns, and it would be an abuse of discretion if she just decided not to. That's the hard part, because as Greta points out...

VAN SUSTEREN: And you know, Roger...

COSSACK: ... they have to turn in some kind of returns at 5:00 tonight, and then the question then becomes what happens after they do the hand count and find out that these returns are incorrect. It would seem to me it would be a real miscarriage of justice not to have the accurate returns reflected.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know what I would do, though, Roger? I would be very careful to rely simply on this judge's decision. There is a risk, at least I would think so if I were lawyers on behalf of the Gore campaign, that if they don't appeal this to the Florida Supreme Court and get a denial by the Supreme Court that later on some court is going to say, look, it's way too late, you should have gone to the Florida Supreme Court, you elected not to, so tough, you've waived your chance.

I might even file a notice of appeal and ask the court to stay it pending resolution of the manual recount, but I would be worried about letting this case go unappealed if I were lawyers on behalf of the Gore campaign -- seems remote, but these are high stakes.

COSSACK: No. You know, I'll tell you why, Greta -- I'll tell you why you are really right, because you and I both know that one of the things that's going to happen in this case is that when there is some kind of a decision made, any kind of a decision, perhaps Friday or Saturday, there is going to be a rush to get out of town like you have never seen and this -- and no one is going to want to revisit this thing a month down the road when somebody comes up with some corrected votes. So, I agree with you, I would have something on file right now rather than a month from now.

VAN SUSTEREN: And you know what...

BATTISTA: Let me ask you this.

VAN SUSTEREN: And you know what my eye is on?


VAN SUSTEREN: My eye is on that Florida Supreme Court, because the Palm Beach Canvassing Commission wants to know whether it should do this manual recount, and the only other way they're going to find out -- they've got conflicting decisions from the secretary of state and the attorney general, they say they are going to the Florida Supreme Court for declaration or advisory opinion. If the Florida Supreme Court, those seven justices say a manual recount is permitted, that's a significant victory for Vice President Gore; if they say it's not, it's a significant defeat for Vice President Gore.

COSSACK: Right, right.

BATTISTA: So, well, help us out here a little bit, what do we know about the supreme court, do they lean one particular way or the other that we know of?

COSSACK: Well, we know that many of them were voted by a Democratic governor...

VAN SUSTEREN: No, but I do know...

COSSACK: ... were appointed by a Democratic governor. I think the most recent appointment is by a Republican governor, but you know, even that, that doesn't necessarily in any way predict how they're going to go.

BATTISTA: And, Greta, how long...

VAN SUSTEREN: And remember that -- go ahead, Bobbie.

BATTISTA: No, I was just going to say, and how long do you think this whole process might take?

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, I don't know. These people should act pretty quickly. I mean, this is an important decision and they've got lots of law clerks, and it's not that complicated, it's simply a matter of making a decision, and they should have been looking at it all week. I mean, it's not a big surprise, so I'll put -- you know, I'll put a little pressure on them to act fast for the benefit of the state and the nation. But they get as long as they want, I suppose.

COSSACK: Bobbie, if there's any decision that should be made quickly it should be this one, this is one where obviously, for other reasons -- you know, we're supposed to have an inauguration January 20 -- we have to have this settled. BATTISTA: All right, Greta and Roger standby, if you will.

I want to throw to Jeanne Meserve now in Austin, Texas, with some late news from the Bush camp.

What's going on down there, Jeanne?

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Mindy Tucker, a spokesman for the Bush campaign has now reacted to this ruling out of Florida that election results have to be certified by 5:00 this afternoon. Mindy, in fact, not speaking here in Austin, but in Tallahassee, Florida, she said that, "We believe this ruling confirms Florida law, that counties have to certify that the county's elections must -- county's election results by 5:00 Eastern this afternoon."

As you know, the Gore campaign is now arguing that there is some leeway there, and that the secretary of state might be able to accept results that come in a little later. The Bush campaign disagrees with that, saying they are trying to find any glimmer of light they can to make this thing drag out, they claim that if hand recounts come in after the 5:00 deadline they would be flawed, because this process is, in their view, a flawed one, subject to human error, and also very subjective.

So that's the bottom line from here. They believe that the secretary of state was correct when she said the results have to be in by 5:00 p.m., they believe the court has now backed her up, and they are saying that's what we want to see and what we expect.

Back to you.

BATTISTA: So, are they saying between the lines then, Jeanne, that they're really going to question basically the votes coming out of Palm Beach either way? I mean, if they turn in a number at 5:00 and it's probably not going to be a correct number, so they may come back to it later, are they going to maintain that that's going to be a flawed number, so that's going to get challenged again?

MESERVE: Bobbie, no decisions have been made on any of that, I don't believe. The Bush campaign actually being very quiet today, they've battened down the hatches, not speaking to anyone until this recent statement from Mindy Tucker, the governor staying out of town and out of camera range. They are not revealing many cards here today. When I asked what the next step was for this campaign, she said, at this point, no decisions to reveal -- Bobbie.

BATTISTA: All right, Jeanne Meserve in Austin, thank you very much.

Boy, when does it end is the question we want to ask here, but we're going to take a break first and we'll continue right after this.



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