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Problems Arise With Florida Overseas Votes


Like everything else in the contentious Florida vote count, problems already are cropping up with the crucial overseas ballots that remain to be tallied.

In Orange County--home to Orlando and Walt Disney World--65 votes are on hand from people who didn't request an absentee ballot from the county.

Are these simple clerical errors? Misrouted ballots intended for a different county? Attempts at voter fraud? Or none of the above?

Such are the questions swirling around a process that is usually an electoral footnote. And with counties facing a noon EST Saturday deadline to report on the more than 2,700 absentee ballots that are in hand but uncounted, officials are bracing for more controversy.

"Usually for this 10-day count, we're like the Maytag repairman," said Fred Galey, election supervisor in Brevard County. "This time, who knows who will be there? I'm sure we're going to have lawyers from both sides. And I'm sure we'll have TV cameras."

Margaret Dunn, who works in the election supervisors' office in Orange County, summed up the challenges officials face as they untangle complicated questions, such as how her county ended up with those 65 ballots.

"Everything's so screwed up," she said.

Under Florida law, an absentee ballot must be returned to the county where the initial request was made--either by the voter himself or through an immediate family member. Dunn said that what to do with the 65 questionable ballots, which make up the vast bulk of the 83 ballots returned to Orange County since election day, will likely be left up to the local canvassing board.

While legal fights continue over whether to include the results of ongoing hand recounts in Florida's final election results, there is no question that the overseas absentee ballots will be counted. But how many of these ballots will be judged valid is another matter.

With a slim 300 votes separating Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore, virtually everyone handling the uncounted ballots understands that there is no margin for error.

From Duval County in the north to Miami-Dade County in the south, the as-yet uncounted ballots--with an additional 5,600 that were mailed out but still not returned--are being held under lock and key, conferred the status of state secrets by many harried election workers charged with their safekeeping.

"I have taken extra precautions in mail room sorting," said Ann Mau, supervisor of elections in Hernando County, on the Gulf Coast just north of Tampa. "I make sure it is done expeditiously. As soon as they get the mail in, they go through it and bring to me in my department any absentee ballots."

Then she locks them up.

Hand counts of the overseas votes are scheduled to begin as early as 2 p.m. EST today in the various jurisdictions.

Officials Can't Say How Many Ballots Are Valid

Right now, Florida election workers say it's hard to say how many of the ballots will be judged valid, opened and counted toward the final Florida vote total.

Overseas absentee ballots must adhere to state guidelines, they say. They must be postmarked by Nov. 7, signed and witnessed, and the voter's signature must match the one kept on file by the county supervisor of elections.

Voter Fraud Report Set Different Rules

Those requirements, however, are not as stringent as those recommended in a 1998 report on voter fraud issued by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The report was completed in the wake of the 1997 Miami mayoral election that was overturned because of rampant absentee voting fraud.

The study said such election fraud is a danger to "the integrity of our democracy in all elections." It recommended stricter procedures for distributing absentee ballots and a reinstatement of an old Florida law that required all absentee ballots to have two or more witnesses or be notarized.

Much speculation remains as to which way the overseas votes will go. Of more than 23,000 ballots mailed to voters outside the United States, 13,830 came back in time to be counted on election day.

A breakdown of all absentee votes--nearly 350,000 stateside and overseas--cast by election day shows a Bush advantage. According to a Times survey, in 39 of Florida's 67 counties, Bush led Gore, 60% to 37%. Results were not available for the remaining counties, including the heavily Democratic Palm Beach and Broward counties.

There has been great interest in the votes returned by military personnel, considered a strong voting bloc by Republicans. As of the end of business Thursday, the Miami office of the U.S. Postal Service reported that 581 ballots from overseas military had been processed by their office since election day.

Those ballots, said South Florida postal service spokeswoman Enola Rice, were forwarded to the appropriate county the day they arrived in Miami. Rice said military ballots may also come through New York City and San Francisco.

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