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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Unanswered Call on Military Ballots

Election: Florida's attorney general asks counties to reconsider those without postmarks, but election officials dismiss the request as a PR move.

November 21, 2000|PAUL RICHTER and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In a move that might be more symbolic than substantial, Florida Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth urged county election officials Monday to reconsider overseas military ballots thrown out for lack of a postmark.

But state election officials dismissed the notion of a new look at the ballots, and canvassing leaders in several counties brushed off the letter from Butterworth, a Democrat and Al Gore ally, as a partisan attempt to turn back attacks on the vice president.

Gore has been battered in recent days by Republicans and military officials for the tactics Democrats deployed late last week to challenge the validity of more than 3,200 absentee ballots that arrived from overseas military personnel and American expatriates.

After the full-court press by Democrats, about 1,400 overseas ballots were not counted because of technical problems such as missing signatures, the lack of a witness or improper registration. State officials remain unsure how many of those were tossed because they didn't have a postmark.

The overseas ballots tilted substantially toward Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush, who tripled his narrow lead over Gore with the help of votes cast mostly by military personnel.

In a one-page letter to canvassing boards in Florida's 67 counties, Butterworth said state and federal law requires simply that overseas ballots cast by the military be dated prior to election day. No postmark is needed.

"No man or woman in military service to this nation should have his or her vote rejected solely due to the absence of a postmark," Butterworth wrote to election supervisors and members of canvassing boards.

But some local election officials in Florida asserted that they were well aware of the law and that Butterworth's effort seemed designed for the ongoing public relations war between Gore and Bush as Florida's key electoral votes remain in play.

"Public opinion is killing them on this," said Fred Galey, election supervisor in Brevard County.

"This doesn't say anything that people don't already know," said Rick Mullaney, a legal advisor to the canvassing board of Duval County.

Joe Bizzaro, a spokesman for Butterworth, said the attorney general did not expect reconsideration of the overseas ballots would give much of a boost to Bush.

Butterworth's concern, he said, was simply that news reports seemed to suggest that military ballots were being thrown out for lack of a postmark. Many of those thrown out, he said, also lacked the proper date needed to pass muster with election officials.

The state does not plan to reopen the issue, since the overseas vote has been counted and certified by the 67 county election supervisors, a top election official said.

"The state canvassing commission is forbidden by law to look beyond those returns," said Florida Division of Elections Director Clay Roberts.

One Southern Democrat and Gore supporter, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, also called for counting of the disqualified military ballots.

"I don't care when it's dated, whether it's witnessed or anything else. If it is from someone serving this country and they made the effort to vote, count it and salute them when you do it," said Miller, a former Marine.

Mindy Tucker, a Bush spokeswoman, said Butterworth's letter likely will have little practical effect to garner additional votes for the Texas governor. Republicans, however, are pulling together figures on the number of votes they believe were improperly rejected by some counties.

"It's something we're taking a very serious look at," Tucker said.

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Times staff writers Scott Gold and Jeffrey Gettleman contributed to this story.

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