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Court rulings spell renewed life for recount efforts

Embattled Florida secretary of state barred from certifying tallies

Former Secretary of State James Baker reacts to the latest legal developments in Florida.  
  • A look ahead
John Zarrella explains why hand recounts press on in Palm Beach County

Bob Franken discusses federal court's role in legal vote battles

Patty Davis on Al Gore's activities

Bill Hemmer on the significance of the Florida recount

Jeanne Meserve on the Bush campaign's recount strategy

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (CNN) -- Ongoing manual recounts in a handful of Florida counties were preserved by a series of court rulings Friday, dashing hopes on the part of the Republicans that the state's presidential election results would be certified by the weekend, and the race for the White House would be over.

In the latest development, the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals denied Friday evening a Republican bid to stop the Florida manual recounts.

The federal appeals court had spent the day pouring over responses received on suits filed by the campaign of Republican hopeful George W. Bush and several Republican voters in Orlando, who were seeking a stop to the recounts. The action was filed in the Atlanta court by the Republicans after a federal court in Florida denied a request for injunction earlier in the week.

In their response to the action, Democrats mocked the basis of the GOP complaint, saying the Bush campaign contends "that humans are incapable of accurately and impartially counting the votes cast ... in a democracy, votes, not holes, are what matter."

Bush's legal point man in Florida, former Secretary of State James Baker, offered a terse reaction to this latest legal development, saying the appeals court's decision meant only that the federal court would stay out of the fray until the state courts had completed their work.

"While we are disappointed ... they specifically noted we are free to return to the federal courts to present our constitutional challenges to the selective and subjective manual recount process at an appropriate time in the future," Baker said.

The federal appeals ruling was only the day's latest to favor the efforts of state Democrats, and the campaign of Vice President Al Gore.

Just two and a half hours before the federal appeals court ruling, Gore welcomed Friday's move by the Florida Supreme Court to block a state official from certifying the state's election tallies, saying a "fair and accurate" resolution of the 2000 presidential election hinged on the "rule of law."

Florida's highest court agreed to consider calls by state Democrats and the Gore campaign, who argued that manual ballot recounts in a select number of counties must be carried out and completed before the state's central election officials are allowed to certify the presidential vote.

The state high court will hear hour-long oral arguments from the Democrats and the Republicans -- who continue to protest the recounts -- at 2 p.m. EST Monday. Until then, the court has ruled Secretary of State Katherine Harris is barred from certifying the presidential election, as she had planned to do Saturday.

In a brief statement to reporters in Washington, Gore said, "The citizens of Florida surely want to see the candidate that won the most votes determined the winner in that state. That is why I am very pleased that the hand counts are continuing.

Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes held a news conference about the appeal of the recount denial and campaign plans (November 17)

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The Gore campaign announces their appeal of the state judge's ruling against recounts and answers reporters' questions (November 17)

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"They are proceeding despite efforts to obstruct them," he said. "And that is why the decision just announced by the Florida Supreme Court is so important."

Baker, in response to the Supreme Court's choice to hold everything off at least until the beginning of the week, said the court had only opted for the "status quo."

"The court issued an order that neither side requested. Nevertheless, the court's action is not an order on the merits of the case," he said.

"We remain confident that ... the Supreme Court will find that the secretary of state properly exercised her discretion and followed the law," he said.

Miami-Dade begins recount; considers troublesome absentee

With the legal chips appearing to fall in their favor, members of the elections canvassing committee of Miami-Dade County voted late Friday afternoon to proceed with a full manual recount of all ballots there. Miami-Dade's board has gone back and forth throughout the week, first opting to shelve any recount effort after conducting a sample hand count of votes from three precincts.

That sample recount turned up six additional votes for Gore -- enough, local Democrats argued throughout the week, to justify a complete manual recount.

With that vote, Miami-Dade officials then turned their attention to the county's absentee-ballots. A Republican elections observer told CNN on Friday that the staff of the county elections division would recommend to the canvassing board that about two-thirds of their 307 overseas absentee ballots be rejected.

According to GOP observer Stephen Halpert, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law, the staff was recommending that some of the ballots be disqualified because there was no record the voter had made a timely request of the state to send the ballot, and others because the voter either did not have a proper witness, or the witness did not list his or her address.

Halpert said the decision wasn't partisan, only "ironic." Local Republicans weren't pleased with the news. Republican Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart said such a high number of invalid absentees would be "outrageous."

Another dizzying day

Harris may have had a harder day than perhaps anyone else involved in this complex situation.

The first of the day's multitude of court decisions saw a Florida judge uphold her legal right to certify the state vote once overseas ballots are tabulated. Harris earlier this week pressed all 67 of the state's counties to turn in final, certified numbers of their Nov. 7 vote tallies.

That process was completed Tuesday -- save for manual recounts now under way in Broward and Palm Beach counties. Both turned in certified numbers at the beginning of the week, but had planned to amend their returns after the recounts. Harris later stated she saw no compelling reason to await the recounts and she intended to certify the election Saturday, after an estimated 2,500 absentee overseas ballots are fully counted.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis said in the morning it appeared that Harris had used her "reasoned judgment" in rejecting requests from Broward, Palm Beach and two other counties to submit late returns. Lewis had ruled earlier that Harris could not "arbitrarily" reject the recounted ballots, but said Friday that Harris had followed his directives, and he would take no action.

But the state Supreme Court weighed in late in the afternoon -- when the Democrats brought forth an appeal of Lewis' morning decision -- effectively thwarting Harris' plans to wrap everything up on Saturday.

The two top men in Gore's Florida legal team, attorney David Boies and former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, emerged early Friday afternoon to speak with reporters in Tallahassee, and outlined a two-pronged attack to thwart the effects of the early Lewis decision -- even while acknowledging that the judge's ruling reasonably upheld state law.

Representatives of the Bush campaign had announced just a short while before that Bush and his vice presidential running mate Dick Cheney were "understandably pleased" with the Lewis development. Bush stayed on his Crawford, Texas, ranch Friday, consulting with his legal team by telephone, before returning to Austin, the state capital, later in the day.

Recounts continue

The Palm Beach County Canvassing Board began recounting its votes Thursday night after the Florida Supreme Court ruled there was no legal reason to prevent them from continuing. Counting resumed Friday morning on the 462,000 votes cast in that county.

Palm Beach canvassing board Chairman Charles Burton, a local judge, said Friday afternoon that the process was not progressing as quickly as the board might have wanted, but would proceed nonetheless.

Broward County's Canvassing Board continued to hand recount that county's 588,000, votes, blessed Friday afternoon by a state judge's ruling that the count can go forward, despite a series of objections lodged by the local Republican Party.

In Sanford, Florida, Democrats sued in an attempt to throw out 4,700 absentee ballots, alleging an election official illegally allowed Republicans to add voter numbers to ballot requests.

And the court situation was made all the more complex when a circuit judge in West Palm Beach said he would issue a written opinion Monday on whether he has the authority to throw out a presidential election and order a revote.

At least seven suits have been filed by Palm Beach County voters contending that the "butterfly" ballot used there was illegally confusing.

Their attorneys argued that Judge Jorge Labarga not only has the authority but must declare a new election. Attorneys for the Bush campaign argued that only Congress can set an election date under the U.S. Constitution. Labarga, they said, does not have that authority.

Mandate for overseas ballots

Harris and other Florida election officials exerted pressure Friday on the state's counties to get their overseas ballot counts completed and into her office by midnight Friday or Saturday morning at the very latest.

In a series of letters and e-mails, the secretary of state's office explained to county officials that these votes simply had to be turned in to be included in the full state certification.

On Nov. 14, Clay Roberts, director of the Division of Elections, sent an e-mail to election officials saying, "The Secretary of State requests that you make plans with your canvassing boards to count and certify the relatively few remaining overseas ballots Friday night, or by no later than Saturday morning" Nov. 18.

A letter the next day from Roberts takes a firmer tone.

"Please fax a copy of the official overseas absentee certified canvass to the Division of Elections as soon as your results are signed by the canvassing board members no later than noon on Saturday."

Florida law requires that overseas absentees postmarked Nov. 7 -- Election Day -- or signed and dated Nov. 7 must be counted if they arrive before midnight Friday.

Florida law, however, also gives county election supervisors until Nov. 24 to report those results to the secretary of state.

CNN Correspondents John King, Jeanne Meserve and Charles Zewe contributed to this report, which was written by Ian Christopher McCaleb.


Friday, November 17, 2000



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