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Trial for Seminole County Absentee Ballots in Evidence Phase

Aired December 6, 2000 - 12:00 p.m. ET


FRANK SESNO, CNN ANCHOR: Democrats in Florida are fighting on two new battle fronts in their struggle to overturn George W. Bush's disputed election victory. Here are the latest developments on this, the country's 29th day after the election without a president-elect.

Two hearings under way in Tallahassee, Florida on whether to throw out 25,000 absentee ballots from Seminole and Martin Counties because of allegedly tainted ballot application forms.

Briefs were due a few minutes ago at the Florida Supreme Court on Gore's appeal of this week's ruling against hand counting votes. Oral arguments are set for tomorrow.

And while the lawyers labor in Florida, members of Congress are hammering away today on the platform at the Capitol, where the oath of office will be taken. Invitations have also been printed for the inauguration of the 43rd president of the United States. Guest of honor still to be determined.

And first to the Leon County Courthouse and those two lawsuits seeking to throw out thousands of absentee ballots. The outcome of either case could determine whether Al Gore would become the next president of the United States.

CNN's Mark Potter is in Tallahassee with more on this aspect of the story.

Mark to you.

MARK POTTER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hello, Frank, the Martin County trial is now in recess. It only went for about an hour and a half this morning. Then they shifted over to where we are now, the Seminole County trial, which is in the evidence phase. The reason for the recess is that the lawyers in both -- share both cases and can't be in the same -- in two places at once. So they shifted from one trial to another. Martin will pick up later in the afternoon, maybe this evening, whenever the Seminole trial ends.

Now, in the Seminole case, the plaintiff is asking that as many as 15,000 absentee ballots be thrown out because of alleged irregularities by Republican Party members and elections officials in the handling of absentee ballot applications.

The plaintiff is a man named Harry Jacobs, an attorney, a Democratic Party activist. And if he succeeds in this lawsuit, and if it is sustained, then George W. Bush would lose the election by about 5,000 votes. He clearly won that county. But if the ballots are thrown out, the absentee ballots, he would lose.

In opening statements, the lawyers presented very different views of what was going on in Seminole County. The lawyers for the plaintiffs say the supervisor of election, by allowing Republicans to fill in voter registration numbers on applications, where they had mistakenly been left off, broke the law, intentionally broke the law in a way that favored the Republican and she intended to do that.

The defendants say that that is not correct, that there was no favoritism, and there was no breaking of any law, that the supervisor of elections was simply trying to make -- to get the ballots to the voters who are innocent in the middle of this, and their argument is that to throw out all those ballots because of what they say is hyper- technicality would be a draconian measure, throwing the baby out with the bath water, to quote one of the attorneys.

Now, we are, as I said, in the evidence phase of the trial right now. We are listening to a man named Dean Ray, who was an unsuccessful county commission candidate in Seminole County. We just finished with him. We now have a man named Livingston. The point that the plaintiffs are trying to make is that the supervisor showed favoritism. These witnesses are being brought on to make that point.

But in cross examination, the defense attorneys are trying to show that she was even handed in her treatment. So two different views of what was going on in Seminole County.

Let's go ahead and listen to the activity here on the third floor of the Leon County Courthouse.


RONALD LIVINGSTON, WITNESS FOR DEM. PLAINTIFF: She said, if you don't like it, file a protest. Then she says: Code Section 102.6. However, if you check, there is no 102.6. The code section is the one I have cited there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did you run for election in 1998?

LIVINGSTON: No, sir. I guess what I need to tell you is, in 1998, I was up in Richmond, Virginia in the -- and I wrote a letter asking about an absentee ballot. Initially, I called her office on September 28, 1998, to request an absentee ballot to vote in the general election on November 3, 1998.

I was given the following information by phone at that time: "The ballot request must be in writing. I would need my voter registration number. If I submitted a request for an absentee ballot without the voter identification number, the request would not be processed and I would not receive a ballot to vote in the upcoming November 3rd '98 general election."

The office also said they "could not and would not enter the voter registration number on my request nor would they give me that number."

The only way I could get my voter registration number was "to complete a Florida voter registration application form," and that's attached to my letter to her of October 5th, 1998, and get it.

They also indicated, "No one could add any information to an absentee ballot request. If the request is incomplete, it would be rejected."

I called. I went through all this. Sent the letter. Sent that in. Received the card, I did not receive my ballot. And on the 19th of October, I called the elections office again. And they said, no, it had been processed and they would be sending it out.

The following day on the 20th of October, 1998, it was postmarked, and I did receive it, and I did execute it, and I did vote.

Now I read the article and was appalled. I was even more appalled when I read the article.

YOUNG: Object. Personal opinion. No responsive to the question that was asked. And the question that was asked was simply: "Did you run for election in 1998?" There has been no other question pending.

Your honor, these was no objection whatsoever. These, by the way, are the questions that were all asked by Mr. Young. There are not the questions I asked. They subpoenaed Mr. Livingston, and this is the deposition Mr. Young took.

CLARK: Are these your questions, Mr. Young?

YOUNG: Yes, irrespective of who asked the question, your honor, doesn't permit the witness to give a run-on answer.

CLARK: Objection overruled.

LIVINGSTON: Now I read the article and was appalled. I was even more appalled when I read the article yesterday, you know, about the information from this Mr. Leach (ph). First of all, the records of a constitutional officer, when those records are in the custody and control of that officer, should and must be the property of that office and not opened to, shall we say, alteration or anything. They should be available, but under conditions which there no chance to alter them.

When I read this thing I don't think that would be like me, why don't I go down to the courthouse, and why don't I get access to the case management computer. Why don't I go down there and check the evidence and say: Gee, we didn't really have but half an ounce of cocaine, it is really only a quarter ounce.

YOUNG: I didn't ask the question. I am going to object to this because whatever may have been asked on a deposition, this is inappropriate testimony.

CLARK: Objection sustained.

POTTER: Well, the witness, Ronald Paul Livingston, brought on by the plaintiffs, who are trying to show that the supervisor of elections in Seminole County intentionally engaged in illegal activities in order to help the Republican Party, an allegation strenuously denied by the defendants.

This case will go on until it finishes, perhaps into the night. And then the Martin County trial, which asks that 10, 000 -- another 10,000 absentee ballots be thrown out will resume. This could be very long day here at the Leon County Courthouse.

Frank, back to you.

SESNO: Mark Potter, thank a lot. Good luck to you. Following that long day.

Also on the boil today, preparations for tomorrow's hearing in the Florida State Supreme Court, as Vice President Gore fights to overturn a lower court ruling and keep his vote recount hopes alive.

Keeping watch there is CNN's Kate Snow -- Kate.


All of the briefs were due in this particular case by noontime, which is just a few moments ago. In fact, we just saw attorneys for the Bush team arrive and turn in their briefs, also just before that, attorneys for the Gore legal team coming here, turning in a 53-page brief, which I have in my hand.

I will try to walk you through it in just a moment. I can also tell you that Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board, Palm Beach County, and Nassau County have filed their briefs in this case. They were, of course, named in the original suit, which went through Judge Sanders Sauls' courtroom.

Also one intervener at the very least, there may be more, from Jacksonville, representing voters in Jacksonville, Florida.

Now the Gore team, when they arrived here, they said that they didn't sleep at all last night. They had worked all night on this 53- page brief. They are putting a lot of weight on this brief. They really have all their hopes tied up in this document.

They cite a defendant's witness that we heard from over the weekend in Judge Sauls' courtroom, that was John Ahmann, who admitted a manual review of ballots might actually be necessary in a close election.

Now, he was a witness for Bush, but he made that admission on the stand. So they point him out at the beginning of the brief. They also go on to say that the trial court, that's Judge Sanders Sauls, reached his decision, denying the contest, without ever even looking at the ballots. That's a theme that is repeated over and over again in this brief filed by the Gore team. They are saying, look, you have to look at these 14,000 ballots that we feel were undervotes.

Also talking about Sauls making fundamental errors of law. They are arguing that the court, the highest court here in Florida, should overturn Judge Sauls because, basically, they think, he didn't use the right standard, he didn't use the right legal analysis when he made his ruling against them the other day.

We are going to continue to look through this brief here. We await for copy of the Bush brief. We will bring that to you as soon as we have it as well.

Back to you, Frank.

SESNO: Kate, before you go away, why don't you just give us a little context as to what the scene is out there. We hear some of the noise behind you. What's the day like?

SNOW: Well, actually, they just showed up about five minutes ago, probably because we were all about to go on the air. About 30 people in a crowd walking back and forth down the street here. There are two -- At least two large rallies planned here today in the Capitol. One by Democrats, another by Republicans, so we do expect to see quite a big crowd here later on this afternoon. That's the first crowd of people that I've seen, and they have just walked on by.

SESNO: All right, Kate, thanks.

CNN's "BURDEN OF PROOF" will have much more on these very important court cases proceeding today. That comes your way at the bottom of this hour, right after NEWS DAY.

Now, as to the court of public opinion. The latest Gallup poll shows a steady drop in public support for the way the Gore campaign is handling the recount: 39 percent now approve of what's going on, compared to 52 percent a week after the election. The poll, taken prior to Monday's circuit court ruling against Gore's request for that hand recount.

Asked if Gore should concede: 58 percent now say yes. That's 12 percentage points higher than about three weeks ago.

The Gore campaign is pressing ahead in the courts nonetheless. The vice president here in Washington. An update now on his day from CNN's Patty Davis -- Patty.

PATTY DAVIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Frank, Vice President Al Gore is expected to head in to work in a little over an hour, we're told, to take care of some official business. On the legal front, the Gore campaign still says that it feels it has a strong case. Of course, it will go before judge -- the Florida Supreme Court tomorrow, appealing Judge Sauls' rejection of its contesting of the election in Florida.

As for the lawsuits today, taking place, being argued on the Seminole County and the Martin County absentee ballot issue, the campaign of course taking pains to say that it is not part of the lawsuits. But it's refusing to comment on the court proceeding. Vice President Al Gore did comment on those yesterday, saying that the Democratic ballots were thrown in the trash can by election officials, and Republican ballots, on the other hand, were filled out. Those voter identification information that was needed there. So he is commenting on it to some extent. But he is refusing to speculate on just what the remedy might be for that situation -- Frank.

SESNO: Patty, thanks.

George W. Bush is in Austin, Texas. Jeanne Meserve is there with him -- Jeanne.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Frank, Governor Bush talked this morning with James Baker. Baker, of course, honchoing the Bush legal effort down in Florida. The governor said this morning he felt that the law was on his side. And you heard his attorneys this morning arguing that whatever problems there may have been with ballot applications, it doesn't warrant throwing out valid votes.

Although the governor has been monitoring the legal situation most of his attention being devoted again today to transition. He met this morning at the Governor's Mansion with Condoleezza Rice, and made it abundantly clear that she will be his pick to be national security adviser.

He said, in fact, that he had made a number of choices for White House staff, and would be announcing those at the appropriate moment. He said he had made no formal job offers, however, to possible Cabinet appointees.

The governor has been talking a lot about the need for bipartisanship Capitol Hill and in Washington. Today he extended that to international policy.


GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We spent a lot of time talking about how to seize what I believe is a very unique moment in American history to promote a foreign policy that is -- that is bipartisan. Great traditions of America has been that foreign policy has been bipartisan. That is they used to say partisanship, when it comes to foreign policy, stops at the water's edge.


MESERVE: Bush went on to say that terrorists should not see an opening or an opportunity in the current political turmoil.

Yesterday, Vice President Gore said he was optimistic about his chances. Today, Bush indicated the same was true for him. One indication of how the center of gravity may have shifted here, Frank. You will recall that in the days after the election, Bush met with Condoleezza Rice at the Governor's Mansion, and was criticized for being very presumptuous. He's meeting with her again, today, you're not hearing that criticism -- Frank. SESNO: Jeanne, he seemed jovial, fairly relaxed, comfortable in this exchange. Sort of sense of where he is headed, even though there's no done deal yet.

MESERVE: That's right. His aides have described him as very calm, very centered. He said last night, in an interview with CBS, that if this had taught him anything, it has taught him patience. Perhaps we're seeing the effects of that -- Frank.

SESNO: Jeanne, thanks.



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