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Battling Over Absentees, Hand to Hand


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Democrats and Republicans fought vote by vote, postmark by postmark Friday as Florida's 67 county canvassing boards tallied overseas ballots that appeared to be padding Texas Gov. George W. Bush's microscopic lead over Vice President Al Gore.

With Democrats contesting ballots cast by American military personnel stationed abroad and Republicans challenging those sent by State Department employees in foreign missions, county canvassing commissions painstakingly reviewed the overseas absentee votes that were mailed before the Nov. 7 election but received after it.

A survey of 65 of 67 counties found that the absentee votes from overseas had extended Bush's lead to 760.

State law required that the votes be received by midnight Friday, and that each county send a new, certified vote total to Secretary of State Katherine Harris. Under a federal consent decree signed in 1980, Florida allows 10 days after an election for overseas ballots to trickle in.

Ordinarily, they are scarcely an asterisk to an election, a formality that is more a tribute to the civic-mindedness of expatriates than a meaningful factor in the outcome of a contest.

But this time, with the razor-thin margin between the candidates and the fate of manual recounts in several Florida counties being fought out in court, the ballots from overseas could determine who occupies the White House on Jan. 21.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties sent legions of lawyers, volunteers and staff to the canvassing board hearings across the state, where they were joined, in many cases, by even greater numbers of reporters, photographers and TV camera crews.

More than 1,100 overseas absentee ballots were thrown out, many of them from the military, and Republicans alleged that Democrats had waged a coordinated campaign to have ballots from the armed services rejected. Democrats denied the charge.

In few spots were the stakes as great as in Duval County, home to two of Florida's biggest Navy bases and, hence, a raft of late-arriving votes from military personnel stationed overseas. Since election day, more than 600 ballots had poured into the country from foreign soil.

Duval Favors Bush by 2-1 Margin

Duval presumably was among the biggest reasons that Bush's lead widened as the overseas ballots were tallied: Republican returns there outnumbered those of Democrats 2 to 1, and the biggest bunch came in the red-lettered envelopes the county reserved for the military.

But the task of figuring what to count proved daunting. Top election officials spent the day locked away in a windowless room at the election headquarters in Jacksonville, the county seat. They were joined by Democratic and Republican party officials and attorneys, three per side.

By midmorning, frustrations were already beginning to show.

"I wish these people would get . . . out of here and let us just count," growled Dick Carlberg, assistant election supervisor in Duval County. "It's horrible." Outside, locals were also grumbling. Nedra Bradley, a Gore supporter, waved a placard castigating the county election chief and screamed until she was hoarse.

"I'll be all right," she said. "And I'll be back in the morning."

Betty Holzendorf, a Democratic state senator from northeast Florida and a prominent leader of Jacksonville's large black community, complained about being denied entry to watch.

She sees trouble ahead, whoever wins the White House.

"We'll be a state divided," she said. "We're sitting on a time bomb. We really are. And anything could set it off."

In sparsely populated Okeechobee County, elections supervisor Gwen Chandler described the scene at her tiny office, which usually receives little or no attention: "We have a matchbox of an office, and there for the count were two party executive chairs, local representatives of the Democratic and Republican parties, lawyers from both sides, spouses, and the press. . . . It was a very unusual picture."

For all that, her canvassing board reviewed all of two overseas ballots. One was rejected for having no witness' signature; the other was a vote for Gore.

In Calhoun County, where Bush led comfortably in the initial vote count, a Democratic Party representative challenged the lone ballot received from overseas, according to election board spokeswoman Jana Whitworth. He lost--and then won when the ballot turned out to be a vote for Gore.

In Tallahassee, the seat of Leon County as well as the state capital, a wooden box filled with rubber stamps sat on the table in the courtroom where the county's three-member canvassing board met Friday. But it was no rubber-stamp procedure.

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