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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Judge Upholds Democrat's Lawsuit Over Absentee Applications

Courts: Floridian can go forward with challenge of Seminole County ballots. He contends only GOP was allowed to add required ID numbers.

November 21, 2000|MITCHELL LANDSBERG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANFORD, Fla. — In her many years as an election official in Seminole County, Sandra Goard never imagined she would be at the center of a dispute that could determine the U.S. presidency.

"Never in my wildest dreams," Goard said Monday after a judge ruled that a Democratic voter could go forward with a lawsuit challenging the handling of absentee ballots in her predominantly Republican, central Florida county. "Maybe I should say, never in my wildest nightmares."

While attention has focused on vote-count disputes in three large, heavily Democratic counties, Seminole--a fast-growing suburban pocket tucked into the lakes and woods north of Orlando--has begun to shape up as a fourth front in the battle for Florida's 25 electoral votes.

Democrat Harry Jacobs, a personal injury lawyer, has sued Goard, the county election canvassing board and the Republican Party--charging that the election chief improperly allowed two GOP operatives to set up shop in her office for 10 days sometime before the Nov. 7 election. Once there, the Republicans were allowed to fix thousands of improperly filled-out applications for absentee ballots that had been sent in by GOP voters.

Jacobs has demanded that the court throw out all of the county's 17,000 absentee ballots--10,006 of which went to Republican George W. Bush. Democrat Al Gore won 5,209 of the absentee votes. In the improbable math of the 2000 presidential election, Seminole County has provided yet another way--unlikely, perhaps, but possible--for Gore to erase Bush's 900-plus-vote lead and win the White House.

Judge Denies GOP Motion to Dismiss Democrat's Suit

In Monday's ruling, county Circuit Judge Debra Nelson, a recent appointee of Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, denied a GOP motion to dismiss Jacobs' lawsuit and said she would go ahead with a hearing on the case next Monday.

Underscoring the importance of the dispute, the state Republican Party and the Bush campaign sent more than half a dozen representatives to the courthouse to pick up copies of Nelson's order and provide some spin to the news media.

"Al Gore just cannot accept defeat," fumed Seminole County's Republican chairman Jim Stelling, who believes the GOP will win the case next week.

"I don't think any judge in the land is going to want to throw out 15,000 votes," he said.

Jacobs said he was "delighted" by Monday's ruling and noted a precedent: In 1998, a judge in Miami threw out all 5,000 absentee ballots in the previous year's mayoral election over charges of tampering. As a result, Mayor Xavier Suarez had to step down and hand City Hall over to his opponent Joe Carollo.

Both sides in the Seminole County dispute agree on the central facts of the case. At some point before the election, Republicans statewide sent out a mailer to voters that included an absentee ballot application. But there was a problem: The vendor who produced the mailers neglected to include any reference to voter identification numbers, which are required by Florida law.

After realizing the mistake, the party sent two staffers to Goard's office. With her blessing, they went through the applications and, using a voter registration database, added the voter identification numbers to each application.

Ballots then were sent to the voters involved, who had no reason to know that their applications had been amended.

Goard referred all questions about the case to her attorney, Jim Hattaway, who agreed with Republican officials that she had done nothing wrong.

"There are very specific statutes that govern what can and can't be done with ballots, and nothing in those statutes says you can't do this," he said.

Stelling said Goard was just doing her job of encouraging people to vote. In fact, he said, the whole issue arose because she is such a stickler and demanded the identification numbers.

Stelling said Republicans used the same flawed applications statewide, and he was aware of no other county challenging them.

Officials with the state Republican Party did not return calls to explain what happened elsewhere in the state. However, in at least one large jurisdiction--Leon County, which includes Tallahassee--an election official said local Republicans fixed the applications to include the identification numbers before sending them to voters.

Democrat Who Filed Suit Cites Unequal Opportunity

Jacobs said he wasn't so much bothered by the fact that the Republicans were allowed to fix the applications--although he insisted that it violated state law--as he was that Goard didn't extend the same opportunity to Democrats who made mistakes in their applications.

"If she had given access to others . . . then it would be a little harder to complain," he said. "She didn't do that, and that's what's so important in this instance. . . . She walked hand in hand with the Republican Party in Seminole County to get out the vote for the Republicans."

He said he knew of at least one family in which a woman who was a Republican filled out the application and received her ballot normally, while her husband, a Democrat, hand-wrote an application and didn't receive his. The man later was able to get a ballot after complaining to election officials.

Jacobs speculated that "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of other Democratic voters did not receive the absentee ballots they requested.

"So it's very one-sided, very selective and very well could have affected the outcome of the race," he said.

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