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Politics & Government

Former Florida Secretary Of State Weighs In On Election Recounts

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A deadline looms in the Florida election recount. That statement is true today, and that statement was true 18 years ago today. Back then, instead of counting ballots in races for governor and senator, Florida was trying to figure out who'd won the presidential election. As those votes were counted, the woman responsible for certifying the election results was Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who joins us now. Welcome.

KATHERINE HARRIS: Thank you, Ari. It's really an honor to be with you.

SHAPIRO: What's been going through your mind as you've been watching this play out?

HARRIS: It truly seems like deja vu all over again. But I'm reminded that I focused the entire time as secretary of state on strictly following the letter of the law. I always said it's not a constitutional crisis; it's a close race.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any advice for the officials who are going through something today that is not all that different from what you went through 18 years ago?

HARRIS: Well, humbly, I could offer the only advice that I know to be true that would be helpful, and that is, regardless of the consequence, follow the letter of the law. It's not the law as they wish it would be. When I was secretary of state, I disagreed with many of the provisions in the Florida law. And previously I'd been in the Florida Senate and tried to sponsor election reform. But there was not the political will to make that happen. After election 2000, I was mocked by the media saying, oh, you'll never get it passed. But we passed the strongest election reform, and it became the model for the nation. So many of the lessons learned...

SHAPIRO: So why does this keep happening in Florida?

HARRIS: Well, guess what. It's going to happen. We have excellent election laws, but we have a very closely divided electorate. I say that we're not a red state or a blue state. We're a purple state. Consequently, we are always going to have close races.

SHAPIRO: Although this does seem to go beyond a close race. You have one county where ballots can only be counted for one race at a time, another where the Senate race came after the Creole language instructions. It seems like Florida keeps running into problems that go beyond its a 50-50 state.

HARRIS: Actually, those issues come back to the fact that the supervisors of elections are constitutionally elected officers in each county. Consequently, that's why you had Theresa LePore's issue with the butterfly ballots and now the issue in Broward County with the ballot.

SHAPIRO: The butterfly ballot - people who may not remember, this was back in Palm Beach County 18 years ago, part of the challenging ballot that was involved in the recount when you were secretary of...

HARRIS: It was a very confusing ballot, correct. Now, secretary of state - I have no authority over the individually elected constitutional officers that are supervisors of elections. I can mandate their equipment, but I cannot tell them what systems to buy, and I cannot specify how their ballots will be designed. That's their unique authority themselves.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any regrets about the way this was handled 18 years ago?

HARRIS: You know, I've thought about that so much, and I believed that when I reflect - and I've tried to think of anything that I could have done differently. The only aspect that I am grateful for is that I never veered from the law. So regardless of the consequence and regardless of how angry people became on one side or the other, I think, as I've said earlier, the only safe harbor is to follow the law because you're going to make half the people unhappy. And it might as well be over the fact that you are following the law than trying to please or let the end justify the means.

SHAPIRO: Katherine Harris, former secretary of state for Florida, thank you for speaking with us today.

HARRIS: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.