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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Overseas Ballots Get Low Marks by Users

Assessment: Voters and experts say the large number of disqualified Florida forms illustrates need for standardization, uniform rules.

November 19, 2000|JUDY PASTERNAK and PAUL RICHTER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The large number of overseas ballots tossed out of the tight presidential race in Florida highlights the need for a standardized form to minimize confusion, voters living abroad and experts in the field said Saturday.

The rules vary from state to state, and the forms vary from county to county. A Palm Beach County voter living in Wales, for example, didn't realize he needed a witness' signature on his sealed ballot envelope. ("I am pleased," his wife, Julie A. Quinn, wrote in an e-mail to The Times, "as I voted for [Al] Gore and he voted for [George W.] Bush!")

In many states, the voter's signature would suffice. But in others, the process is even more complicated than in Florida: If Quinn's husband had been voting in Michigan, he would have needed a stamp from the U.S. consulate as well.

The varied regulations "can be a bit unwieldy for Americans who are trying to help other Americans" perform their civic duty while overseas, said Amy Balderson, a public relations consultant in Geneva who headed the voter registration drive in Switzerland for Republicans Abroad.

While Bush gained 1,380 votes in Florida's tally of overseas voters, completed Saturday, and Gore garnered 750, an additional 1,420 ballots were disqualified. The reasons ranged from a lack of witness signatures to improper postmarks--Florida permits ballots to have arrived by Friday, but they must bear proof that they were mailed by election day, Nov. 7.

Many of the challenges that disqualified ballots were lodged by local Democratic officials. That caused the Bush campaign Saturday to accuse Gore supporters of trying, in effect, to disenfranchise members of the armed services.

Florida's overseas voters were scattered from Singapore to Kosovo to the Netherlands Antilles. They included not only military personnel but also State Department officials, global business executives, a colony of retirees in Israel and Americans who moved to their spouses' homelands.

"The more complicated the rules, the more people will be doing it wrong," said Taylor Dark, a dean at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan, who has studied the voting patterns of Americans abroad. He sent his vote from Japan to Pasadena and says California required only signing and dating.

Balderson dealt with so many different types of paperwork and regulations that she has trouble remembering the details of her own ballot, cast for Bush in Florida's Pinellas County. "I think there was a folder," she said, straining to recall. "And it's not clear whether you need your witness to be an American citizen. . . . Mine was, though."

David Froehlich, a coordinator in Israel for the Federal Voter Assistance Program, said a "unified standard absentee ballot" for citizens abroad is a priority for Democrats and Republicans alike. Another is a universal right for transmission of ballots by fax, which is now allowed, he said, in 10 states but not Florida.

While Sgt. 1st Class Lon St. Jon had no trouble figuring out the ballot he sent from a camp in southeast Kosovo to Pinellas County, he thinks "the system is outdated." He called for "one system, with everybody voting the exact same way."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Tallying Overseas Ballots

Number of overseas ballots accepted and rejected in the presidential race in Florida by election officials in the state's 67 counties.

*--*

County Accepted Rejected Alachua 28 28 Baker 1 2 Bay 59 29 Bradford 2 1 Brevard 73 31 Broward 92 304 Calhoun 1 0 Charlotte 4 5 Citrus 44 9 Clay 192 20 Collier 23 43 Columbia 6 1 DeSoto 1 3 Dixie 1 0 Duval 478 64 Escambia 154 112 Flagler 5 2 Franklin 1 1 Gadsden 4 1 Gilchrist 0 0 Glades 0 0 Gulf 4 0 Hamilton 2 0 Hardee 3 3 Hendry 0 0 Hernando 17 2 Highlands 3 1 Hillsborough 62 74 Holmes 1 0 Indian River 5 3 Jackson 3 0 Jefferson 0 0 Lafayette 0 0 Lake 0 5 Lee 23 37 Leon 30 19 Levy 6 0 Liberty 0 0 Madison 1 0 Manatee 94 37 Marion 15 15 Martin 3 2 Miami-Dade 103 102 Monroe 8 0 Nassau 6 2 Okaloosa 135 48 Okeechobee 1 1 Orange 30 117 Osceola 28 8 Palm Beach 36 16 Pasco 19 28 Pinellas 52 23 Polk 22 22 Putnam 16 5 St. Johns 25 27 St. Lucie 1 13 Santa Rosa 45 21 Sarasota 35 25 Seminole 169 60 Sumter 0 0 Suwannee 4 1 Taylor 2 0 Union 0 0 Volusia 22 42 Wakulla 0 0 Walton 5 5 Washington 1 0 Totals 2,206 1,420

*--*

Sources: County election offices, Associated Press.

Compiled by Times researchers Lianne Hart,

Massie Ritsch, Edith Stanley and Anna M. Virtue.

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