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Judges Hear Democratic Challenges to Absentee Ballots in Seminole and Martin Counties; Florida Legislature Moves to Appoint Electors

Aired December 6, 2000 - 8:00 p.m. ET

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight: construction begins on Washington's transition.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We in the Congress look forward to hosting the swearing in of the new president and vice president on January 20.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: George W. Bush is busy recruiting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When it comes to a White House staff I've pretty well made up my mind on who should serve

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Al Gore has no comment entering the White House, ignoring the fat lady's serenade.

Today's courtroom drama in Florida centers around whether to throw out thousands of absentee ballots.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GERALD RICHMAN, ATTORNEY FOR PLAINTIFF: You've got a Republican party operative who is in the office who has accessed to everything that's there.

UNIDENTIFIED ATTORNEY: The relief they sought is not only draconian, but they want, in essence, to cast the baby out with the bathwater.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: With an election 2000 showdown tomorrow in Florida Supreme Court, one new first family is welcomed at Washington's zoo while the next occupants at the White House are still to be determined. Get ready for a special edition of THE WORLD TODAY.

Good evening, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting tonight from Washington. Major developments today in the Florida vote. The Republican leaders of the Florida legislature made it official: They announced plans for a special session Friday, effectively, to make sure George W. Bush gets the state's 25 electoral votes no matter what happens in the courts.

And speaking of courts, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta today rejected Bush's request to throw out those manual recounts. And lawyers for Bush and Gore today filed their written arguments before the Florida Supreme Court, which tomorrow morning convenes for what some say is a do or die session for Al Gore.

But the main action today was focused in Tallahassee; that's where Democrats in two separate cases are trying to throw out several thousand absentee ballots that went largely for Bush. The Martin County case will get underway shortly. When it does, we'll join it.

But first, the Seminole County case, which resumes tomorrow. Attorneys for the plaintiffs say absentee ballot applications from Republicans that came in incomplete were amended while incomplete applications from Democrats were not.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GERALD RICHMAN, ATTORNEY FOR PLAINTIFF: You notice this -- it says "voter ID number is blank." The Democrats had the place in there for it, and this was a democratic voter -- that was one that was rejected. And then we look over here is the Republican form; and on the Republican form on the postcard, the voter ID number place for the printer was right up here.

The machine said "two" instead of putting in the right voter identification number. The back of the card didn't have a place for it -- they had a place for the phone number, they had a place for the signature, they had a place for the name and the address; but on the front of it where it said voter ID number, there's the handwriting of Mr. Leach, where he went ahead and added it.

So disparate treatment is clearly established right there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: An attorney for the Seminole County canvassing board strongly disagreed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TERRY YOUNG, SEMINOLE CANVASSING BOARD ATTORNEY: There is nothing that will reflect that these absentee ballot votes in question, the ones that came from the approximately 2,000 request forms in which Mr. Leach corrected an error made by no one at the supervisor's office -- made by no one in the voter's household -- that these votes do not reflect the will of the people in Seminole County. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: CNN's Bill Delaney has been following these developments all day and he joins us now, live from Tallahassee.

Bill, how high is the burden of proof for the Democrats in this Seminole County case.

BILL DELANEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they've got a pretty tough hurdle to climb here. The plaintiffs in the case essentially need to prove that there was some kind of fraudulent action, some kind of a "conspiracy," as they put it, between the election supervisor Sandra Goard in Seminole County and Republican operatives.

Now, the case law on this, Wolf, has essentially demanded that, to throw out ballots -- and they're asking to throw out 15,000 -- there had to be some kind of intentional fraud. That's what this all boils down to: Did Sandra Goard, the election supervisor in Seminole County, intentionally, illegally allow this Republican operative to change these absentee ballot applications, or was she just trying to do her job, Wolf -- was she simply trying to enable voters to vote?

Lets remember, it's not ballots that are at issue here -- it's not whether invalid ballots were what people voted on -- it's whether applications for these absentee ballots were changed, and did the Republicans get a fair -- a better shot at changing ballot applications than Democrats did?

Now, of course the Republicans argue that the Democrats didn't have the same problem that the Republicans did. The Republicans, when they sent out their get-out-the-vote absentee ballot applications to people they hoped would vote Republican, forgot to leave a line for the voter ID. Democrats also sent out get-out-the-vote absentee ballot applications for people they hoped would vote for them. They sent out a better application, it included a line for the voter ID.

So it boils down is, did this election supervisor intentionally collude with Republican operatives to give Republicans an advantage in all this? And it also boils down to that remedy, and this is a tough one for Judge Nikki Clark in the Leon County courthouse, here. She will hear the closing arguments tomorrow at 1:00 in the afternoon. She has to decide whether the plaintiff's remedy should be what they're asking for: that all 15,000 valid absentee ballots been thrown out because about 2,000 of them were filled in improperly by a Republican operative -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right; Bill Delaney reporting live from Tallahassee, thank you very much.

Let's bring in CNN's election law analyst who's been following all of this all day long -- David Cardwell.

David, we're standing by, awaiting the resumption of a similar trial involving Martin County absentee ballot applications. You've been following both of these trails. Just to set the stage, this trial involving Martin County started early this morning -- 7:00 a.m. Eastern. It recessed at about 8:30 to allow the Seminole County trial to take place for about 10 hours -- that's because some of the attorneys that were involved in Seminole County are also involved in Martin County.

Any major differences between these two trials?

DAVID CARDWELL, CNN ELECTION LAW ANALYST: Well, it's basically the same legal issue: If someone adds information to the absentee ballot request form, does that constitute some violation of Florida election code and, if so, does it rise to the level where you would throw out all of the absentee ballots? The facts are basically the same, there are a few differences and there are fewer votes -- or fewer ballots, I should say, in Martin County that are at issue.

One of things, though, that I didn't hear raised today in the Seminole County case -- I'll be interested to see if it's either raised in Martin County or perhaps tomorrow in final arguments -- is that this is the first election cycle that we've had in Florida with the new absentee ballot legislation. It was amended in 1998, but it did not go into effect until '99. And it's a much stricter standard, as far as the statutes are concerned, in terms of what you have to do to comply with the absentee voting statute. But at the same time, they're requirements for bringing an election contest may have been loosened a little bit.

And the cases that have been cited for throwing out all of the absentee ballots were decided before these amendments. So an argument may be made that the courts can go ahead and now reinterpret these new statutes, since those previous cases were under old statute.

BLITZER: David, one of arguments that the Democrats have been making is that they didn't get the same treatment that the Republicans received in Seminole County; but the canvassing board there says the Democrats never asked to come in and rewrite some of those application forms as the Republicans did. So does that argument really hold?

CARDWELL: Well, the evidence that was presented today did show that the different ballot requests were treated differently; but when you look at the overall facts, as Sandy Goard said in her deposition that was read in court, she didn't get a request from the Democrats. She got a request from the Republicans, she accommodated them.

And the Democrats said, we didn't ask because we had heard in advance of the election that the law was going to be strictly applied and we didn't think there was any, you know, real reason to ask. So, you know, there's going to be a difference of opinion. You're going to hear that argued by both sides in their closing arguments tomorrow afternoon.

BLITZER: And if the judge in Seminole County case, Judge Nikki Clark, and the judge in the Martin County case, Judge Terry Lewis -- if, for example, they rule in favor of the plaintiffs, the Democrats in this particular case, presumably it will go up to the Supreme Court. Those seven justices have made clear they want to cherish every voter who voted legitimately in this election.

CARDWELL: That's true; and so they're going to be confronted with that, but then they're also going to be confronted with their own precedent -- in several decisions, going back to the early 1980s when they've thrown out absentee ballots.

But let me just mention, another point to watch here is the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. You mentioned they took some action today -- they turned down the request of the Bush campaign to block any manual recounts, but they reserved the constitutional argument -- or constitutional issues that were raised, which means that if it's still sitting there in the 11th Circuit -- if recounts are ordered or ballots are thrown out, we may still find ourselves getting back over into the federal courts.

BLITZER: All right; David Cardwell, thanks again for joining us, as you have been almost every night throughout this coverage of this Florida vote -- thank you very much.

Let's get back to the case involving Seminole County. The matter may not have landed in court at all if not for the reporting of our next guest.

Before the election, Keith Altiero was with radio station WDBO, he was covering the get-out-the-vote story in Seminole County. He discovered that a Republican Party official was amending applications for absentee ballots. Keith joins us now, live in Tallahassee.

Keith, just to set the stage, you were there, ostensibly, to testify today, but you were never called, is that right?

KEITH ALTIERO, WDBO RADIO: That's correct. Sometime during the lunch break, the lawyers got together. I think they wanted to speed up the schedule here. It was lagging. And I was going to be live on the stand, but instead my deposition was entered as evidence.

BLITZER: When you first heard about this, how in fact did you hear that Republican operatives were inside that canvassing board, the supervisor's office, filling out these applications forms? How did you learn about this?

ALTIERO: Well, to quickly set the timeline, we aired the story that there was a problem with these request forms -- no I.D. number -- on the 16th. We aired it on the 17th. Then, in between the 17th and the 31st, when we aired the story that the Republicans were in there fixing them, somehow word got to Tallahassee. Somebody from Tallahassee -- Michael Leach, evidently -- called Sandra Goard and asked her to come in and try to resolve the situation.

We did a story similar to this comparing Orange and Seminole counties, two different policies with these request cards. On the 30th, I think Sandra Goard got some more phone calls. She called us and said, we have a fix in place, we want to let the people know in Seminole County that they're probably going to get their absentee ballot cards. I went in there. I talked with her. She went on tape explaining that this exactly is what happened. We aired it on the 31st. All this before the election, which is interesting to the defense, because they're going to say that the time to file a complaint with this was before the election, not after the election, and also a timeline, as far as what Bob Poe knew, the state Democratic Party chair, before the election and not after the election -- and what he might have told Harry Jacobs about it before the election, not after the election.

BLITZER: So what you're suggesting is that the Democrats only got concerned once they saw how close this election was in Florida and they really didn't take any action in advance of the election?

ALTIERO: I think you're going to see something along those lines in the closing arguments tomorrow afternoon.

BLITZER: All right, Keith Altiero, thanks for joining us, and I assume you had some fun in Tallahassee while you were there, even though you didn't have to testify. Thank you very much.

Up next, the wait for Bush and Gore: their strategies, when we return.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Senators Chris Dodd and Mitch McConnell, hammering in, getting ready for an inauguration here in Washington earlier today. This was perhaps the most tangible progress toward getting a new president: the construction of the platform at the west front of the U.S. Capitol, where either Al Gore or George W. Bush will take the oath of office on January 20th.

And as the legal maneuvering presses on in the courts, George W. Bush is wasting no time planning for his potential administration. At the Texas governor's mansion today, Bush met with Condoleezza Rice, who's considered the favorite to become his national security adviser. And he says he has others candidates in mind for other positions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm spending a lot of time thinking about the Cabinet. I am -- I can tell you this: that when it comes to a White House staff, I've pretty well made up my mind on who should serve.

Hopefully, there will be an appropriate moment to share that information with the people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: It seems like all the different court suits are working their way to finality, and I hope we can get this over with quickly, and there's a lot of work to be done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: For more on the Bush transition and reaction from today's court drama, we're joined by CNN senior political correspondent Candy Crowley once again in Austin, Texas.

Candy, what's the strategy unfolding today in the Bush camp as far as all of these legal and political maneuverings are concerned?

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's day two of the strategy to sort of back off the Al Gore should concede. They're trying to leave a very wide stage for the vice president to play this out, which right now is being played out in the courtroom.

I think you heard him talk about the various court cases that were out there, and what's happening here is that the governor is making decisions. His senior staff in fact is in place as far as he's concerned. He is honing in on Cabinet names.

It's now sort of a matter of timing. They don't want to put the Cabinet names out there definitively until after these courts decide. So decisions are being made, but the ultimate decision -- and that is the courtrooms in Florida -- are going to have to come first.

BLITZER: So I take it that no formal announcement as far as Cabinet positions are going to be made until this is all a done deal, presumably, let's say, Al Gore formally concedes.

CROWLEY: With this caveat. If the Florida Supreme Court or one of the other courts starts up a recount, they may feel the need to go back and look at the option of naming some Cabinet officials before they're done in the courts. But their preferences and their strategy at this moment is they don't went to do Cabinet officials until after there's been some sort of concession.

If that doesn't come and this drags out for another, you know, four or five weeks, they're going to change that.

BLITZER: All right, Candy Crowley, thanks again for joining us.

Meanwhile, Al Gore kept a low profile today as he followed the legal activity -- Gore spent most of the day at the vice presidential residence after a brief visit to the White House -- and as Democrats battled in court hoping to erase Bush's lead in Florida.

Joining us now from Washington with more on the Gore camp, CNN congressional correspondent Jonathan Karl.

Jonathan, how is Gore dealing with all of these multiple activities, these legal activities going on today?

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, for at least now, he's been in virtual seclusion at his residence. The vice president from his residence was on the phone frequently throughout day with his legal team in Tallahassee.

You know, his lawyers down there have come to call him the client and he calls frequently throughout the day, not just to David Boies and Ron Klain, his frontline lawyers, but even to junior lawyers on the team working on very specific aspects of his case. And I'm also told he spent much of the day, or at least much of the morning, glued to his television set watching those Seminole and Martin County cases.

Meanwhile, outside the residence, there was some political theater going on courtesy of a radio station. They actually sent this woman out there to sing a few songs. But if the fat lady is indeed, as you see, singing there, the vice president is certainly not hearing her tune.

His legal team is telling him that he has a good chance down there tomorrow, despite all the analysis that's out there, all the legal analysis outside of the Gore team, they believe they've got good grounds for appeal.

By the way, though, Wolf, those same lawyers are telling him that he believes -- that they believe that there's a good reason not to join the Martin and Seminole County cases, because they believe those cases stand a very good chance of losing.

BLITZER: All right, Jonathan Karl, thank you so much for joining us once again.

Meantime, many in Washington were more interested in the arrival of these two giant pandas. They came to replace the late pandas at the National Zoo.

Up next, tomorrow's key hearing in Florida Supreme Court: A retired justice helps us sort through the issues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back. One of Al Gore's last hopes of overturning George W. Bush's lead in Florida hinges on a hearing tomorrow morning before the Florida Supreme Court. The justices will decide whether to uphold a lower court decision that rejected any further recounts. In the brief filed by the Gore team, the say Judge Sanders Sauls' ruling "is flawed because he did not review any of the 14,000 ballots in question."

The Bush team replied by saying, quote: "Any further review of the Circuit Court's opinion would ultimately lead to massive uncertainty and discord."

Joining us for more insight into tomorrow morning's hearing is the former Florida Supreme Court Justice Gerald Kogan. Justice Kogan served on the high court in Florida for 11 years. He joins us now live from Miami.

Thank you so much for once again joining us on THE WORLD TODAY, Justice Kogan. The argument that is made by the Bush team in their brief that any further review would ultimately lead to massive uncertainty and discord is that a relevant factor with the seven justices of the Supreme Court? GERALD KOGAN, FORMER FLORIDA SUPREME COURT JUSTICE: No, Wolf, it's not. Their only consideration is whether or not Judge Sauls' ruling is correct and if it correct, they will sustain it. If it's incorrect, they're going to reverse it and I don't think they'll send it back to him for further proceedings. I'm think in their order they're probably, because time is of the essence, say what they expect to happen. And whether that's recount or whatever, I think they will order that in their opinion.

BLITZER: And if they order hand recount of those 14,000 disputed ballots in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade Counties, presumably that could happen immediately, right? Time is of the essence right now?

KOGAN: Yes, there's no question in my mind if that's the way they're going to rule, then they will ask that it be done immediately. Now, I'm not so sure he need to recount ballots in Palm Beach. I think those have been already counted. Katherine Harris has said that she won't accept hand recount that came in late. But the ballots in Dade County certainly would be counted if the court rule that way and it can be done quickly.

BLITZER: Would you care to speculate or venture a prediction what -- knowing these seven justices as you do, knowing their earlier rulings involved in this Florida vote which direction they might move?

KOGAN: This is a court which has shown in the past that they are very concerned that every voter's vote counts, and consequently, I think that is their primary consideration in deciding this case.

BLITZER: And if they go ahead and order that those manual recounts resume of those thousands of ballots in Miami-Dade, is there anything that the Bush side can do to still prevent it above and beyond what the Florida Supreme Court decides?

KOGAN: Well, based upon the opinion that came out today from the United States Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, it doesn't appear that they'll be able to go into federal court on that issue.

BLITZER: The Supreme Court did give them a slight -- the U.S. Supreme court give the Florida Supreme Court a slight little criticism by sending back, vacating their earlier decision. You expect that to come up as well?

KOGAN: I understand, and again this is solely from what I gather from the media, that the court is going ask for little bit of oral argument on that. Now, I don't think this was slap on the wrist or any such thing. I think that the U.S. Supreme Court just wanted to know specifically what it was that the Florida Supreme Court relied upon in its earlier decision and as a matter of fact, there's even a hint in their opinion that if the Florida Supreme Court says, look, we relied solely upon Florida law as set out in the statutes and all we're doing is reconciling conflicts and interpreting what's in the Florida statutes I think that's the Supreme Court is looking for to say, OK, this is obviously going to be a state question and not a federal question. BLITZER: Judge Gerald Kogan, former Florida Supreme Court justice, thanks again for joining us. On tonight's "MONEYLINE" update there are more indications the economy is slowing. The Federal Reserve said today automobile sales as well as manufacturing and construction slowed in November while inflation remained generally subdued. On Wall street today, stocks tumbled on news of earnings trouble at Apple Computer. The Dow Industrials plummeted 233 points to close at 10,665. The Nasdaq fell 92 points to 2,797.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Stay with CNN throughout the evening for complete coverage of the Florida vote. For now, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Greta Van Susteren picks up our coverage with a special report next.

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