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Election 2000: Hearing for Martin Co. Absentee Ballot Lawsuit Set to Begin

Aired December 6, 2000 - 7:00 a.m. ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: A key battle for the Florida vote begins in a courtroom in Florida, this courtroom just minutes from now.

CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: At stake, enough disputed ballots to tip the election to Al Gore.

HARRIS: It is now 7:00 a.m. on the East Coast, 4:00 a.m. on the West. This is Wednesday December 6th.

LIN: And from the CNN Center in Atlanta this is EARLY EDITION.

HARRIS: We want to welcome our viewers here in the U.S. and those who are joining us from around the world this morning. I'm Leon Harris.

LIN: And I'm Carol Lin. Thanks for joining us this morning.

More courtroom confrontation today in the battle for Florida's 25 presidential electoral votes. Any minute now, a trial will open in this Leon County Circuit courtroom. It is a lawsuit that seeks to throw out 10,000 absentee ballots in Martin County, where they voted two to one for George W. Bush. Voter fraud is alleged here.

And in a similar but separate lawsuit, involving roughly 15,000 ballots in Seminole County, the Seminole case is also being heard today.

HARRIS: That's right. Now here is the morning's court schedule. The Martin County absentee ballot case is said to begin this hour. The absentee ballot case from Seminole County, that one begin in about 90 minutes at 8:30 a.m. Eastern.

LIN: There is a lot to be sorted out in these two cases being tried at the Leon County courthouse in Tallahassee.

HARRIS: That's right. A nation waits so let's get right to it. CNN's Bill Hemmer anchors our coverage this morning from the Florida capital of Tallahassee. We say good morning to him now.

Good morning, Bill.

LIN: Good morning, Bill. BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Leon, Carol, good morning to both of you as well.

Was it a violation of election law or was it simply a hyper- technicality? The outcome of that decision could go a long way again in determining who wins the vote and the fight now for Florida.

As you mentioned, at any moment, Judge Terry Lewis will step into his courtroom at Circuit Court here in Tallahassee, and this trial will begin in Martin County. Again, as the schedule you were showing, later today, we expect Seminole County to get underway.

CNN's Mark Potter outside the circuit court also over there.

Mark, good morning to you.


Well, the first of two trials is about to get underway here at the Leon County Courthouse. As you said, indeed, it is the one from Martin County, Florida, that is north of Palm Beach.

The second trial, which will be underway in the same courthouse, is from Seminole County, and that is near Orlando.

Now together they are asking that up to 25,000 absentee ballots be thrown out because of alleged irregularities in the handling of absentee ballot applications. The first lawsuit to be filed and the one getting the most attention is the one from Seminole County.


(voice-over): The lawsuit was filed by Harry Jacobs, an attorney and volunteer vote-count observer for the Democratic Party. It claims thousands of Republican absentee ballots should be thrown out, which could cost George W. Bush the election.

HARRY JACOBS, PLAINTIFF: There are going to be a lot of people upset with the action I'm taking. I'm taking it because it's the right thing to do.

POTTER: The suit claims the Seminole County supervisor of elections and members of the Republican Party violated Florida election laws. Supervisor Sandra Goard is under fire for allowing Republicans to use her office to correct errors on thousands of absentee ballot applications, not the ballots themselves, which can be verify by comparing signatures on file.

The pre-printed applications didn't include the voters' registration numbers, as required by law, and Republicans were allowed to correct the mistake so ballots could be sent out. Jacobs argues that was illegal, and the ballots should be disqualified.

JACOBS: To allow those voters' ballots to be counted when they were illegally issued then dilutes everyone else's vote who voted legally in this particular election. POTTER: Jacobs says if those specific ballots can't be found, then all 15,000 absentee votes must be disqualified. Republicans say this is Democratic Party politics at its most desperate.

KEN WRIGHT, ATTY., FLORIDA REPUBLICAN PARTY: This is an attempt to target Seminole County, which is Republican-rich country, where they know mathematically if they can throw out 15,000 votes, they can gain a 5,000-vote advantage for Al Gore in the statewide count.

POTTER: At the first of several hearings, attorneys said Supervisor Goard and party officials did absolutely nothing wrong.

JIM HATTAWAY, ATTORNEY: It's not an illegal act, it's not a felonious act, and the plaintiffs are just wrong -- pure and simple.

CROWD: Count my vote! Count my vote!

POTTER: At the Leon County Courthouse, absentee voters from Seminole County protested the intent to invalidate their ballots. The lawsuit is supported by the Florida Democratic Party, but lawyers for the Gore campaign have not joined in.


POTTER: Now Harry Jacobs says the law is the law and the ballots must get thrown out. Republicans say this is a hyper-technicality for which thousands of voters should not be punished.

Now the Martin County case is similar, the plaintiffs' attorneys there say it involved about 670 ballots where the numbers were changed, they say there is a little bit of a difference there, though, in that the Republicans took the applications from the supervisor's office to their office, to put in the numbers, and brought them back, and they say that that is another violation.

The schedule here is interesting. The Martin County trial gets underway shortly, it goes to about 8:15, and then at 8:30 that one recesses and the Seminole case goes until lunch.

During the lunch break they go back to the Martin case in the afternoon. Back to Seminole into the evening. And then back to Martin as far as midnight if they need to.

The reason for that back and forth activity is that the plaintiffs are different but the lawyers are the same and they can't be in two places at once, they are going to be going back and forth from next door courtrooms.

Now we have a little bit of biographical information on the judges who are presiding over these cases. Terry Lewis is handling the Martin County case and he was appointed to the Leon County Circuit Court by Governor Lawton Chiles in 1998. Governor Chiles, if you recall, the late Governor Chiles was a Democrat. Judge Lewis was elected a Leon County judge and served from 1989 to 1998. He was a private practitioner from 1979 to 1989. And he is the author of a book called "Conflict of Interest." Now the judge overseeing the Seminole case is judge Nikki Ann Clark, she was appointed to the Leon County Circuit Court again by Governor Chiles in 1993. She was the director of cabinet affairs for the office of governor in 1993, the director of legislation and policy development for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection from 1991 to 1993, and was an assistant attorney general for Florida from 1981 to 1991.

So it is going to be a long day here at the Leon County Courthouse, an interesting day, a strange schedule, as they try to get through this in one day. And we are getting ready to hear the first of the cases, again, the case brought from Martin County, Florida.

Bill, back to you.

HEMMER: All right, Mark, thank you.

Juggling courtrooms, another interesting twist in this case. Let's bring in David Cardwell now, our elections analyst here in Florida. In Florida election history, has there ever been a case similar to this with statewide implications, where the applications influenced the ballot and they were all thrown out?

DAVID CARDWELL, CNN ELECTION LAW ANALYST: We haven't had a statewide -- as we have learned throughout this entire process, we are doing a lot of things for the first time. We have had cases, though, at the county level where there have been so many problems with the absentee ballots that the court has thrown out all of the absentee ballots and relied on the machine count.

But what is interesting is that this challenge was brought to the absentee ballots after they were removed from the outer envelope, that means you can't match up the ballot requests, and the ballots themselves. So that is why they are asking that all of the ballots be thrown out because the so-called bad ballots have been intermingled with the good ballots.

HEMMER: And ultimately if the judge does sign with the plaintiffs in this case, the Democrats, it will be an interesting remedy to say the least. David Cardwell, thank you. Stand by here.

Before we get back into the courtroom now -- again, you're looking at live pictures of circuit court, I want to go across the street to Susan Candiotti at state supreme court. Again oral arguments slated for tomorrow. First the court must decide if it should take the case, and then secondly, if they affirm that, they will decide the merits of that case. Again, this goes back to Judge Sauls' ruling from earlier this week.

Over to Susan now quickly. Good morning to you.


Just before noon time today, you can expect to see attorneys representing Vice President Gore and Governor Bush, as well as Secretary of State Harris, bounding up the steps here at the Florida Supreme Court building in order to meet a filing deadline. They will be submitting written arguments, called briefs, before the Florida Supreme Court in advance of those oral arguments scheduled for 10:00 tomorrow morning.

At that time, each side will have one half hour to present its case. The entire hearing is slated to last only for one hour. And it will be televised.

As you indicated, the first order of business will be for attorneys for Vice President Gore to try to convince this court that it should use its authority, its discretion to even hear the merits of Vice President Gore's appeal, while making arguments at that very same time.

Now, if Vice President Gore is turned down, that could be the end of the road for him. If not, this court could order the counting of 14,000 contested ballots from a few counties, and of course all that would have to be done by December the 12th, as you know, that is the deadline for choosing Florida's electors -- Bill.

HEMMER: Susan, thank you.

Again, we are watching the courtroom of Terry Lewis. Again, this is the Martin County case. It should begin momentarily. We will be here to watch it. But for now, back to Atlanta quickly with Leon and Carol at the CNN Center.

HARRIS: All right. thanks, Bill.

LIN: Thanks, Bill.



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