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CNN International




Election 2000

CNN's John Zarrella on the Florida election results

November 16, 2000
4:30 p.m. EST

John Zarrella's Photo(CNN) -- As the Friday deadline for absentee ballots neared, the court battles heated up. At the center of the controversy was the legality of the hand counts in Palm Beach and Broward counties. A decision was expected by Friday morning on whether Secretary of State Katherine Harris abused her discretion when she refused to consider them in the final count.

John Zarrella is CNN's Miami bureau chief. He has played an integral role in CNN's coverage of the Florida region, including Hurricane Andrew, the Cuban and Haitian refuge crises and, most recently, the Elian Gonzalez case.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, John Zarrella, and welcome.

John Zarrella: Hello, audience. Once again, my pleasure, as always.

Question from Have: Have the overseas ballots been counted or included in the totals yet?

John Zarrella: Here is the civics lesson as best I understand it myself. All of the overseas ballots that have been received so far, or were received up until the time of the last official count, have already been counted.

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For example, in Palm Beach County, 514 absentee ballots have already been included in the total. There are 515 more that are outstanding. In other words, ballots that were sent out, but either not received back or have been received since the last official count.

There are about, in my understanding, 29 of those 515 ballots that are in the hands of elections officials here. Those and whatever others come in today and tomorrow, will be sent to the secretary of state by midnight tomorrow to be counted. In fact, the exact number is a little more.

I've just pulled out my notes. There are 25 that have been verified, 19 that are questionable for a variety of reasons, including postmarks that are unreadable, and seven that are federal write-ins. So that's the breakdown in Palm Beach County and also how it works.

Question from Andrea: If the court rules that Harris has acted arbitrarily, do you think that there is a chance that her impeachment or her resignation will be called for?

John Zarrella: What will happen first is that the counties will -- certainly, Palm Beach County -- will immediately begin counting ballots. That will be the first thing. It is not likely -- although the Democrats might call for it -- it's not likely that Secretary Harris would be forced to resign under those circumstances, because it is her contention and that of the Division of Elections that what she is doing is carrying out her duty and following the law.

What could get her in some degree of hot water, so to speak, would be this: If the court ordered her to count those ballots that would be and are being hand-counted, and she refused to comply, then she could be held in contempt.

We are just hearing, and I do not have the details, that Palm Beach County has just received the go-ahead to resume hand counts. That being the news, that also means that the state Supreme Court that we were talking about a few minutes ago, has ruled in favor of the position taken by Palm Beach County, and opposed the position taken by the secretary of state.

The question that remains now is whether Palm Beach County's vote, even though they can recount, will be accepted by the secretary of state. In other words, although the county has been told it can recount, it's still not clear whether the secretary of state is compelled to acknowledge the recount.

Question from Ezwinner: Are there guards posted where the ballots are being stored?

John Zarrella: In fact, yes. There is security around where the counting rooms are. And because these are counties that are counting in Florida, you have sheriff's deputies. So the Palm Beach County's sheriff's department is watching over, protecting the ballot rooms, and any time the ballots are moved from one location to another, they are escorted by Palm Beach County sheriff's deputies.

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The same is true in Broward County. I was in Broward County a week ago, when they conducted the first machine recount. There were Broward County sheriff's officers inside the counting room, and at the entrances to the counting room, so there is tight security that really prevents any sort of mischief.

Question from Joe: If this is not resolved before the Electoral College meets in December, then what happens?

Question from ShimSham: Clinton is in office till late January, and the Electoral College doesn't meet until late December. What's the hurry?

John Zarrella: That has been the argument of the Democrats right along, that there is no need for a rush to judgment, so to speak, that you have until the Electoral College meets in order to resolve this Florida crisis.

The other part of the issue is that Florida, if there is no resolution when the electors meet, could potentially be left out of the count. It would be a very rare circumstance, but my understanding is that it is a possibility. And if you throw the Florida count out completely, the number of electors needed to become president would likewise have to be reduced. And how exactly this would be formulated is apparently unclear, and it's not a bridge that anyone in Washington wants to cross.

But it is possible that a president can be elected with fewer than 270 electoral votes, if the state is thrown out.

Chat Moderator: Is there a constitutional issue involved here that would enable the issue to go before the U.S. Supreme Court?


John Zarrella: It is certainly possible that there would be constitutional issues that could supercede state law, and that would result in one or the other side appealing ultimately, perhaps, to the U.S. Supreme Court. We have already seen that the Republicans have gone to the federal appeals court in Atlanta, seeking to have hand counts stopped in Florida. So there could very well be other issues, constitutional in nature that could result in more federal action but it is not likely.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts to share with us?

John Zarrella: I may be wrong, but I believe that the ruling by the Florida Supreme Court, allowing the recount in Palm Beach County, is a major development and a major victory, certainly for the county, and probably being received with cheers at the Gore household. So stay tuned, because this story is far from over!

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today.

John Zarrella: Thank you, not goodbye, but see you later!

John Zarrella joined the chat via telephone from Florida. CNN provided a typist for John Zarrella. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Thursday, November 16, 2000.

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