We have for review two related trial court orders appealed to the First District Court of Appeal, which certified the orders to be of great public importance requiring immediate resolution by this Court (Case Numbers SC00-2348 and SC00-2349). We have jurisdiction under article V, section 3(b)(5) of the Florida Constitution. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we reverse the orders of the trial court. Pages 1-2.
Twenty-five years ago, this Court commented that the will of the people, not a hyper-technical reliance upon statutory provisions, should be our guiding principle in election cases:
The real parties in interest here, not in the legal sense but in realistic terms, are the voters. They are possessed of the ultimate interest and it is they whom we must give primary consideration. The contestants have direct interests certainly, but the office they seek is one of high public service and of utmost importance to the people, thus subordinating their interest to that of the people. Ours is a government of, by and for the people. Our federal and state constitutions guarantee the right of the people to take an active part in the process of that government, which for most of our citizens means participation via the election process. The right to vote is the right to participate; it is also the right to speak, but more importantly the right to be heard. We must tread carefully on that right, or we risk the unnecessary and unjustified muting of the public voice. By refusing to recognize an otherwise valid exercise of the right of a citizen to vote for the sake of sacred, unyielding adherence to statutory scripture, we would in effect nullify that right. Pages 8-9.
The first issue this Court must resolve is whether a County Board may conduct a countywide manual recount where it determines there is an error in vote tabulation that could affect the outcome of the election. Here, the Division issued opinion DE 00-13, which construed the language 'error in vote tabulation' to exclude the situation where a discrepancy between the original machine return and sample manual recount is due to the manner in which a ballot has been marked or punched.
Florida courts generally will defer to an agency's interpretation of statutes and rules the agency is charged with implementing and enforcing. Florida courts, however, will not defer to an agency's opinion that is contrary to law. We conclude that the Division's advisory opinion regarding vote tabulation is contrary to law because it contravenes the plain meaning of section 102.166(5). Pages 10-11.
The issue in dispute here is the meaning of the phrase 'error in the vote tabulation' found in section 102.166(5). The Division oines that an 'error in the vote tabulation' only means a counting error resulting from incorrect election parameters or an error in the vote tabulating software. We disagree.
The plain language of section 102.166(5) refers to an error in the vote tabulation rather than the vote tabulation system. On its face, the statute does not include any words of limitation; rather, it provides a remedy for any type of mistake made in tabulating ballots. The Legislature has utilized the phrase "vote tabulation system" and "automatic tabulating equipment" in section 102.166 when it intended to refer to the voting system rather than the vote count. Equating 'vote tabulation' with "vote tabulation system" obliterates the distinction created in section 102.166 by the Legislature.
Sections 101.5614(5) and (6) also support the proposition that the "error in vote tabulation" encompasses more than a mere determination of whether the vote tabulation system is functioning. Section 101.5614(5) provides that "no vote shall be declared invalid or void if there is a clear indication of the intent of the voter as determined by the canvassing board." Conversely, section 101.5614(6) provides that any vote in which the Board cannot discern the intent of the voter must be discarded. Taken together, these sections suggest that "error in the vote tabulation" includes errors in the failure of the voting machinery to read a ballot and not simply errors resulting from the voting machinery. Pages 12-13.
The Elections Canvassing Commission ("Canvassing Commission" or "Commission"), which is composed of the Governor, the Secretary of State, and the Director of the Division of Elections, canvasses the returns statewide, determines and declares who has been elected for each office, and issues a certificate of election for each office as soon as the results are compiled. If any returns appear to be irregular or false and the Commission is unable to determine the true vote for a particular office, the Commission certifies that fact and does not include those returns in its canvass. In determining the true vote, the Commission has no authority to look beyond the county's returns. A candidate or elector can "protest" the returns of an election as being erroneous by filing a protest with the appropriate County Canvassing Board. And finally, a candidate, elector, or taxpayer can "contest" the certification of election results by filing a post-certification action in circuit court within certain time limits 34 and setting forth specific grounds. page 17-18
Legislative intent as always is the polestar that guides a courts inquiry into the provisions of the Florida Election Code. Where the language of the Code is clear and amenable to a reasonable and logical interpretation, courts are without power to diverge from the intent of the Legislature as expressed in the plain language of the Code. As noted above, however, chapter 102 is unclear concernin both the time limits for submitting the results of a manual recount and the penalties that may be assessed by the Secretary. In light of this ambiguity, the Court must resort to traditional rules of statutory construction in an effort to determine legislative intent. page 24
The Legislature thus envisioned that when returns are submitted to the Department, the returns "shall" embrace all the votes in the county, including absentee ballots. This, of course, is not possible because our state statutory scheme has been superseded by federal law governing overseas voters; overseas ballots must be counted if received no later than ten days following the election (i.e., the ballots do not have to be received by 7 p.m. of the day of the election, as provided by state law). In light of the fact that overseas ballots cannot be counted until after the seven-day deadline has expired, the mandatory language in section 102.111 has been supplanted by the permissive language of section 102.112. Further, although county returns must be received by 5 p.m. on the seventh day following an election, the "official results" that are to be compiled in order to certify the returns and declare who has been elected must be construed in pari materia with section 101.5614(8), which specifies that "write-in, absentee and manually counted results shall constitute the official return of the election."
Under this statutory scheme, the County Canvassing Boards are required to submit their returns to the Department by 5 p.m. of the seventh day following the election. The statutes make no provision for exceptions following a manual recount. If a Board fails to meet the deadline, the Secretary is not required to ignore the county's returns but rather is permitted to ignore the returns within the parameters of this statutory scheme. To determine the circumstances under which the Secretary may lawfully ignore returns filed pursuant to the provisions of section 102.166 for a manual recount, it is necessary to examine the interplay between our statutory and constitutional law at both the state and federal levels. page 29-30
Courts must not lose sight of the fundamental purpose of election laws: The laws are intended to facilitate and safeguard the right of each voter to express his or her will in the context of our representative democracy. Technical statutory requirements must not be exalted over the substance of this right.
Based on the foregoing we conclude that the authority of the Florida Secretary of State to ignore amended returns submitted by a County Canvassing Board may be lawfully exercised only under limited circumstances as we set forth in this opinion. Page 32-33.
Ignoring the county's returns is a drastic measure and is appropriate only if the returns are submitted to the Department so late that their inclusion will compromise the integrity of the electoral process in either of two ways: (1) by precluding a candidate, electo, or taxpayer from contesting the certification of an election pursuant to (Florida Statute) 102.168 or (2) by precluding Florida voters from participating fully in the federal electoral process. In either case the secretary must explain to the Board her reason for ignoring the returns and her action must be adequately supported by the law. To disenfranchise voters in an effort to deter Board members, as the Secretary in the present case proposes, is unreasonable, unnecessary and violates long-standing law. Page 33-34.
Because the right to vote is the pre-eminent right in the Declaration of Rights of the Florida Constitution, the circumstances under which the Secretary may exercise her authority to ignore a county's returns filed after the initial statutory date are limited. The Secretary may ignore such returns only if their inclusion will compromise the integrity of the electoral process in either of two ways: (1) by precluding a candidate, elector, or taxpayer from contesting the certification of election pursuant to section 102.168; or (2) by precluding Florida voters from participating fully in the federal electoral process. In either such case, this drastic penalty must be both reasonable and necessary. But to allow the Secretary to summarily disenfranchise innocent electors in an effort to punish dilatory Board members, as she proposes in the present case, misses the constitutional mark. The constitution eschews punishment by proxy. Page 38-39.
As explained above, the Florida Election Code must be construed as a whole. Section 102.166 governs manual recounts and appears to conflict with sections 102.111 and 102.112, which set a seven-day deadline by which County Boards must submit their returns. Further, section 102.111, which provides that the Secretary "shall" ignore late returns, conflicts with section 102.112, which provides that the Secretary "may" ignore late returns. In the present case, we have used traditional rules of statutory construction to resolve these ambiguities to the extent necessary to address the issues presented here. We decline to rule more expansively, for to do so would result in this Court substantially rewriting the Code. We leave that matter to the sound discretion of the body best equipped to address it the Legislature.
Because of the unique circumstances and extraordinary importance of the present case, wherein the Florida Attorney General and the Florida Secretary of State have issued conflicting advisory opinions concerning the propriety of conducting manual recounts, and because of our reluctance to rewrite the Florida Election Code, we conclude that we must invoke the equitable powers of this Court to fashion a remedy that will allow a fair and expeditious resolution of the questions presented here.
Accordingly, in order to allow maximum time for contests pursuant to section 102.168, amended certifications must be filed with the Elections Canvassing Commision by 5 p.m. on Sunday, November 26, 2000 and the Secretary of State and the Elections Canvassing Commission shall accept any such amended certifications received by 5 p.m. on Sunday, November 26, 2000, provided that the office of the Secretary of State, Division of Elections is open in order to allow receipt thereof. If the office is not open for this special purpose on Sunday, November 26, 2000, then any amended certifications shall be accepted until 9 a.m. on Monday, November 27, 2000. The stay order entered on November 17, 2000, by this Court shall remain in effect until the expiration of the time for accepting amended certifications set forth in this opinion. The certificates made and signed by the Elections Canvassing Commission pursuant to section 102.121 shall include the amended returns accepted through the dates set forth in this opinion.
It is so ordered. No motion for rehearing will be allowed.