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Election 2000

Transcript of Decision by the Florida Supreme Court -- Dec. 8, 2000

ALBERT GORE, JR., and JOSEPH I. LIEBERMAN, Appellants, vs. KATHERINE HARRIS, as Secretary, etc., et al., Appellees.
December 8, 2000

We have for review a final judgment of a Leon County trial court certified by the First District Court of Appeal as being of great public importance and requiring immediate resolution by this Court. We have jurisdiction. See art. V, § 3(b)(5), Fla. Const.

1 The final judgment under review denies all relief requested by appellants Albert Gore, Jr. and Joseph I. Lieberman, the Democratic candidates for President and Vice President of the United States, in their complaint contesting the certification of the state results in the November 7, 2000, presidential election.

2 The appellants have alternatively styled their request for relief as a Petition for Writ of Mandamus or Other Writs.

3 See §§102.111 & .121, Florida Statutes (2000).

4 Bush received 2,912,790 votes while Gore received 2,912,253 votes.

Although we find that the appellants are entitled to reversal in part of the trial court's order and are entitled to a manual count of the Miami-Dade County undervote, we agree with the appellees that the ultimate relief would require a counting of the legal votes contained within the undervotes in all counties where the undervote has not been subjected to a manual tabulation. Accordingly, we reverse and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

On November 26, 2000, the Florida Election Canvassing Commission (Canvassing Commission) certified the results of the election and declared Governor George W. Bush and Richard Cheney, the Republican candidates for President and Vice President, the winner of Florida’s electoral votes. The November 26, 2000, certified results showed a 537-vote margin in favor of Bush. On November 27, pursuant to the legislatively enacted “contest” provisions, Gore filed a complaint in Leon County Circuit Court contesting the certification 5 See § 102.168(3)(c), Fla. Stat. (2000) on the grounds that the results certified by the Canvassing Commission included “a number of illegal votes” and failed to include “a number of legal votes sufficient to change or place in doubt the result of the election.”5 Pursuant to the legislative scheme providing for an "immediate hearing" in a contest action, the trial court held a two-day evidentiary hearing on December 2 and 3, 2000, and on December 4, 2000, made an oral statement in open court denying all relief and entered a final judgment adopting the oral statement.

The trial court did not make any findings as to the factual allegations made in the complaint and did not reference any of the testimony adduced in the two-day evidentiary hearing, other than to summarily state that the plaintiffs failed to meet their burden of proof. Gore appealed to the First District Court of Appeal, which certified the judgment to this Court.

The appellants' election contest is based on five instances where the official results certified involved either the rejection of a number of legal votes or the receipt of a number of illegal votes. These five instances, as summarized by the appellants' brief, are as follows:

(1) The rejection of 215 net votes for Gore identified in a manual count by the Palm Beach 6 Bush claims in his brief that the audited total is 176 votes. We make no determination as to which of these two numbers are accurate but direct the trial court to make this determination on remand. Canvassing Board as reflecting the clear intent of the voters;

(2) The rejection of 168 net votes for Gore, identified in the partial recount by the Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board.

(3) The receipt and certification after Thanksgiving of the election night returns from Nassau County, instead of the statutorily mandated machine recount tabulation, in violation of section 102.14, Florida Statutes, resulting in an additional 51 net votes for Bush.

(4) The rejection of an additional 3300 votes in Palm Beach County, most of which Democrat observers identified as votes for Gore but which were not included in the Canvassing Board’s certified results; and

(5) The refusal to review approximately 9000 Miami-Dade ballots, which the counting machine registered as non-votes and which have never been manually reviewed.

For the reasons stated in this opinion, we find that the trial court erred as a matter of law in not including:
(1) the 215 net votes for Gore identified by the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board 6 and
(2) in not including the 168 net votes for Gore identified in a partial recount by the Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board.

However, we find no error in the trial court's findings, which are mixed questions of law and fact, concerning (3) the Nassau County Canvassing Board and the (4) additional 3300 votes in Palm Beach County that the Canvassing Board did not find to be legal votes. Lastly, we find the trial court erred as a matter of law in (5) refusing to examine the approximately 9000 additional Miami-Dade ballots placed in evidence, which have never been examined manually.

Article II, section I, clause 2 of the United States Constitution, grants the authority to select presidential electors "in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct." The Legislature of this State has placed the decision for election of President of the United States, as well as every other elected office, in the citizens of this State through a statutory scheme. These statutes established by the Legislature govern our decision today. We consider these statutes cognizant of the federal grant of authority derived from the United States Constitution and derived from 3 U.S.C. § 5 (1994) entitled "Determination of controversy as to appointment of electors.” That section provides:
If any State shall have provided, by laws enacted prior to the day fixed for the appointment of the electors, for its final determination of any controversy or contest concerning the appointment of all or any of the electors of such State, by judicial or other methods or procedures, and such determination shall have been made at least six days before the time fixed for the meeting of the electors, such determination made pursuant to such law so existing on said day, and made at least six days prior to said time of meeting of the electors, shall be conclusive, and shall govern in the counting of the electoral votes as 7 In a substantial and dramatic change of position after oral argument in this case, Bush contends in his "Motion for Leave To File Clarification of Argument" that section 102.168 cannot apply in the context of a presidential election. However, this position is in stark contrast to his position both in this case and in the prior appeal.

In fact, in Oral Argument on December 7, 2000, counsel for Bush agreed that the contest provisions contained in the Florida Election Code have placed such proceedings within the arena for judicial determination, which includes the established procedures for appellate review of circuit court determinations. Further, Bush's counsel, Michael Carvin, in the prior Oral Argument in Palm Beach Canvassing Board v. Harris, in arguing against allowing manual recounts to continue in the protest phase, stated that he did not think there would be any problem in producing...that kind of evidence in an election contest procedure...instead of having every court in Florida resolving on an ad hoc basis the kinds of ballots that are valid and not valid, you would be centralizing the factual inquiry in one court in Leon County. So you would bring some orderliness to the process, and they would be able to resolve that evidentiary question. One way or another, a court's going to have resolve it. (emphasis supplied).

Moreover, the Answer Brief of Bush in Case Nos. SC00-2346, 2348, and 2849 (Nov. 18, 2000 a page 18 states that "to implement Petitioners' desired policy of manual recounts at all costs, the Court is asked to . . . (5) substitute the certification process of Section 102.111 and Section 102.112 for the contested election process of Section 102.168 as the means for determining the accuracy of the vote tallies." (emphasis supplied).

In addition, the December 5, 2000 brief of Amici curiae of the Florida House of Representatives and the Florida Senate, in case nos. SC00-2346, SC00-2348 & SC00-2349 (Dec. 5, 2000) at 8 "The Secretary's opinion was also consistent with the fact that the statutory protests that can lead to manual recounts are county-specific complaints about a particular county's machines, whereas a complaint about punchcards generally undercounting votes really raises a statewide issue that should be pursued, provided in the Constitution, and as hereinafter regulated, so far as the ascertainment of the electors appointed by such State is concerned. (Emphasis supplied).

This case today is controlled by the language set forth by the Legislature in section 102.168, Florida Statutes (2000). Indeed, an important part of the statutory election scheme is the State’s provision for a contest process, section 102.168, which laws were enacted by the Legislature prior to the 2000 election.7 if at all, only in a statewide contest." (emphasis supplied).

Finally the Amended Answer Brief of the Secretary of State asserted that [p]etitioner has confused a pre-certification election protest (section 102.166) with a post-certification contest (section 102.168). such facts and circumstances are usually discovered and raised in a contest action that cannot begin until after the election is certified.

The Legislature imposed a deadline for certification because of the short time frame within which to begin and conclude an election contest. Petitioners are, in effect, asking this Court to delay the commencement of election contest actions, if any, by improperly using the protest procedures to contest the election before certification.Because the facts and circumstances concerning voter error and ballot design in Palm Beach County are more properly raised in a contest action, these facts were not relevant to the Secretary's decision to certify the election. Her decision triggered the time for bringing any election contest actions. (emphasis supplied).

Although courts are, and should be, reluctant to interject themselves in essentially political controversies, the Legislature has directed in section 102.168 that an election contest shall be resolved in a judicial forum. See § 102.168 (providing that election contests not pertaining to either house of the Legislature may be contested “in the circuit court”). This Court has recognized that the purpose of the election contest statute is "to afford a simple and speedy means of contesting election to stated offices." Farmer v. Carson, 110 Fla. 245, 251, 148 So. 557, 559 (1933).

In carefully construing the contest statute, no single statutory provision will be construed in such a way as to render meaningless or absurd any other statutory provision. See Amente v. Newman, 653 So. 2d 1030, 1032 (Fla. 1995). In interpreting the various statutory components of the State’s election process, then, a common-sense approach is required, so that the purpose of the statute is to give effect to the legislative directions ensuring that the right to vote will not be frustrated. Cf. Firestone v. News-Press Pub. Co., 538 So. 2d 457, 460 (Fla. 1989) (approving common-sense implementation of valid portion of section 101.121, Florida Statutes (1985)-- which broadly read, in pertinent part, that "no person who is not in line to vote may come [into] any polling place from the opening to the closing of the polls, except the officially designated watchers, the inspectors, the clerks of election, and the supervisor of elections or his deputy"-- so as not to exclude persons accompanying aged or infirm voters, children of voting parents, doctors entering the building to treat voters needing emergency care, or persons bringing food or beverages to the election workers because such activities are recognized as "incidental to the voting process and . . . sometimes necessary to facilitate someone else's ability to vote").

Section 102.168(2) sets forth the procedures that must be followed in a contest proceeding, providing that the contestant file a complaint in the circuit court within ten days after certification of the election returns or five days after certification following a protest pursuant to section 102.166(1), Florida Statutes (2000), whichever occurs later. Section 102.168(3) outlines the grounds for contesting an election, and includes: "Receipt of a number of illegal votes or 8 Viewed historically, section 102.168 did not always provide for contests of the type we consider today. As originally enacted, section 102.168 simply provided a mechanism for ouster of elected local officials. Under that version of the statute, election challenges were limited to county offices, and only the person claiming to have been rightfully elected to the position could challenge the election. See Ch. 38, Art. 10, §§ 7, 8, 9 (1845).

9 The following language of section 102.168, Florida Statutes was changed in 1999 (words stricken are deletions; words underlined are additions):

(1) Except as provided in s. 102.171, the certification of election or nomination of any person to office, or of the result on any question submitted by referendum, may be contested in the circuit court by any unsuccessful candidate for such office or nomination thereto or by any elector qualified to vote in the election related to such candidacy, or by any taxpayer, respectively.

(2) Such contestant shall file a complaint, together with the fees prescribed in chapter 28, with the clerk of the circuit court within 10 days after midnight of the date the last county canvassing board empowered to canvass the returns certifies the results of the election being contested or within 5 days after midnight of the date the last county canvassing board empowered to canvass the returns certifies the results of that particular election following a protest pursuant to s. 102.166(1), rejection of a number of legal votes sufficient to change or place in doubt the result of the election." § 102.168(3)(c) (emphasis added).

Finally, section 102.168(8) authorizes the circuit court judge to "fashion such orders as he or she deems necessary to ensure that each allegation in the complaint is investigated, examined, or checked, to prevent or correct any alleged wrong, and to provide any relief appropriate under the circumstances." (Emphasis added.)

The Legislature substantially revised section 102.168 in 1999. 8 That amendment preserved existing rights of unsuccessful candidates and made important additional changes to strengthen the protections provided to unsuccessful candidates in a contest action to be determined.9 Moreover, rather whichever occurs later. adjourns, and

(3) The complaint shall set forth the grounds on which the contestant intends to establish his or her right to such office or set aside the result of the election on a submitted referendum. The grounds for contesting an election under this section are:

(a) Misconduct, fraud, or corruption on the part of any election official or any member of the canvassing board sufficient to change or place in doubt the result of the election.

(b) Ineligibility of the successful candidate for the nomination or office in dispute.

(c) Receipt of a number of illegal votes or rejection of a number of legal votes sufficient to change or place in doubt the result of the election.

(d) Proof that any elector, election official, or canvassing board member was given or offered a bribe or reward in money, property, or any other thing of value for the purpose of procuring the successful candidate's nomination or election or determining the result on any question submitted by referendum.

(e) Any other cause or allegation which, if sustained, would show that a person other than the successful candidate was the person duly nominated or elected to the office in question or that the outcome of the election on a question submitted by referendum was contrary to the result declared by the canvassing board or election board.

(4) The canvassing board or election board shall be the proper party defendant, and the successful candidate shall be an indispensable party to any action brought to contest the election or nomination of a candidate.

(5) A statement of the grounds of contest may not be rejected, nor the proceedings dismissed, by the court for any want of form if the grounds of contest provided in the statement are sufficient to clearly inform the defendant of the particular proceeding or cause for which the nomination or election is contested.

(6) A copy of the complaint shall be served upon the defendant and any other person named therein in the same manner as in other civil cases under the laws of this state. Within 10 days after the complaint has been served, the defendant must file an answer admitting or denying the allegations on which the contestant relies or stating that the defendant has no knowledge or information concerning the allegations, which shall be deemed a denial of the allegations, and must state any other defenses, in law or fact, on which the defendant relies. If an answer is not filed within the time prescribed, the defendant may not be granted a hearing in court to assert any claim or objection that is required by this subsection to be stated in an answer.

(7) Any candidate, qualified elector, or taxpayer presenting such a contest to a circuit judge is entitled to an immediate hearing. However, the court in its discretion may limit the time to be consumed in taking testimony, with a view therein to the circumstances of the matter and to the proximity of any succeeding primary or other election.

(8) The circuit judge to whom the contest is presented may fashion such orders as he or she deems necessary to ensure that each allegation in the complaint is investigated, examined, or checked, to prevent or correct any alleged wrong, and to provide any relief appropriate under such circumstances. Ch. 99-339, § 3, Laws of Fla. than restraining the actions of the trial court hearing the contest, the legislative amendment codified the grounds for contesting an election, entitled any candidate or elector to an immediate hearing and provided the circuit judge with express authority to fashion such orders as are necessary to ensure that each allegation in the complaint is investigated, examined or checked. See Fla. H. R. Comm. on Election Reform, HB 291 (1999) Staff Analysis (February 3, 1999).

Although the right to contest an election is created by statute, it has been a long-standing right since 1845 when the first election contest statute was enacted. See ch. 38, art. 10, §§ 7-9 Laws of Fla. (1845). As well-established in this State by our contest statute, "[t]he right to a correct count of the ballots in an election is a substantial right which it is the privilege of every candidate for office to insist on, in every case where there has been a failure to make a proper count, call, tally, or return of the votes as required by law, and this fact has been duly established as the basis for granting such relief." State ex rel. Millinor v. Smith, 107 Fla. 134, 139, 144 So. 333, 335 (1932) (emphasis added).

The Staff Analysis of the 1999 legislative amendment expressly endorses this important principle. Similarly, the Florida House of Representatives Committee on Election Reform 1997 Interim Project on Election Contests and Recounts expressly declared: Recounts are an integral part of the election process. For one's vote, when cast, to be translated into a true message, that vote must be accurately counted, and if necessary, recounted. The moment an individual's vote becomes subject to error in the vote tabulation process, the easier it is for that vote to be diluted. Furthermore, with voting statistics tracing a decline in voter turnout and in increase in public skepticism, every effort should be made to ensure the integrity of the electoral process. Integrity is particularly crucial at the tabulation stage because many elections occur in extremely competitive jurisdictions, where very close election results are always possible. In addition, voters and the media expect rapid and accurate tabulation of election returns, regardless of whether the election is close or one sided. Nonetheless, when large numbers of votes are to be counted, it can be expected that some error will occur in tabulation or in canvassing.

Id. at 15 (footnotes omitted). It is with the recognition of these legislative realities and abiding principles that we address whether the trial court made errors of law in rendering its decision.

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