PENSACOLA, Fla. — At least one thing is undisputed in the nation's fractious and drawn-out presidential election: upward of 1,850 Florida absentee ballots from overseas military personnel and expatriates will be tabulated Friday by election officials across the state, and their impact will be huge.
While the election has been fought on a far bigger battlefield, with about 104 million votes cast, the relative handful of late-arriving overseas absentee ballots loom large, with Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican nominee, holding a tenuous 300-vote lead in Florida over his Democratic rival, Vice President Al Gore.
A Times county-by-county survey found that, as of Wednesday, 1,850 absentee ballots are in the hands of election officials but not yet counted. The ballots have trickled in, and the total is expected to rise modestly before midnight Friday, the deadline for absentee votes to be counted.
The Times survey also found that of all the absentee ballots received by Nov. 7, election day, Bush received about 62% to Gore's 38%, suggesting that the remaining absentee votes could likewise be in Bush's favor.
That would be consistent with the 1996 presidential vote, when Republican Bob Dole--who won only 42% of Florida's total turnout--received 54% of the 2,227 Florida absentee votes counted after the election.
If that pattern holds--and if myriad legal fronts seeking manual recounts in Florida counties fail--the overseas absentee ballots point unmistakably to a Bush presidency.
Around Pensacola, the election has been a hot topic.
"This showed everyone, not just those of us in the military, that every vote counts," said Charles White, a petty officer first class who trains naval electricians. "I think Bush will win. That's always been the trend in the military, to go Republican."
But changing demographics as well as Vice President Al Gore's service in Vietnam have shaken up the mix a bit.
William Shorter, who spends his workdays strapping bombs to military aircraft, trudged to the base commissary Wednesday evening, talking up Gore's chances with overseas ballots.
"There's 12, 15 enlisted men for every officer flying a plane over there, and enlisted seem to tend toward Gore," said Shorter, himself a Gore supporter. "It will be close. Really, really close."
Outside of the military vote, Democrats hope their efforts to woo Jewish voters living in Israel can counter the usual Republican advantage abroad.
With the polls whipsawing for months before election day, both parties took aggressive steps to boost the overseas election tally.
Republicans bought ads in the International Hearald-Tribune and other foreign publications. The prime argument: Bush would boost expatriate tax breaks. Gore also advertised abroad, even offering the services of a voting assistance officer in Israel.
The importance of such efforts has only been magnified in the week after the close of the polls, as neither candidate has the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. But either would be put over the top by Florida's 25 electoral votes.
Under Florida law, absentee ballots issued to people within the United States must be returned to county election offices by the close of the polls on election day. However, absentee ballots issued to overseas voters can be received as late as midnight Friday, as long as they are filled out by election day, verified by a dated postmark or by a witnessed and dated signature.
County canvassing boards will review the ballots Friday, looking at postmarks and dates of signatures, to determine whether they are eligible to be counted. Those accepted will be certified Saturday.
A simmering issue in Florida involves who gets to vote by absentee ballot in the first place.
Florida law holds that absentee ballots are for Florida residents who cannot make it to the polls on election day. Yet over the years, absentee ballots have been filed by people who no longer live in Florida. And a preelection mailing by the state Republican Party encouraged party faithful to request absentee ballots so they could vote "from the comfort of your own home."
The process is based on the honor system, down to how people register in the first place. There is no requirement to prove residency when registering to vote. "Whatever address they put down, they are swearing to an oath that everything on the form is correct and that that is their legal residence," said Wilma Davio, a worker in the Escambia County supervisor of elections office, Florida's northwesternmost county, which includes Pensacola.
Hans von Spakovsky, a Georgia election official and advisor to the national Voting Integrity Project, an anti-voter-fraud organization based in Arlington, Va., described Florida's voting laws as looser than most other states.
But, he said, he had seen no indications of fraud in this election.
"I don't see anything going on," said Von Spakovsky, a Republican member of the Fulton County, Ga., elections board. "What I have seen is a PR battle being waged."