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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

A County's Back-Room Goings-On Bring Suit

Law: Local official let GOP operatives correct 4,700 absentee applications that would have been thrown out.

November 28, 2000|SCOTT GOLD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANFORD, Fla. — The supervisor of elections in Seminole County has conceded that she allowed two Republican Party operatives to correct 4,700 Republican absentee ballot applications so they would not be thrown out, court documents revealed Monday.

A 132-page deposition taken of Elections Supervisor Sandra Goard paints a picture of an informal small-town voting operation with few security checks or paper trails--though the office, near Orlando, Fla., could play a key role in deciding the outcome of the presidential election.

In the deposition, Goard, an elected Republican who has held office since 1983, acknowledged that two representatives of the state Republican Party used a back room in her office for 10 days to correct the ballot applications.

Goard conceded that no one ever was allowed to correct applications in the past, and that her staff assisted the GOP representatives by sorting Republican applications from Democratic applications--something else that never had been done before.

According to the documents, Goard said her office didn't check the identification of one of the two men, and she told attorneys that she still has no idea who he is. The men were not supervised while they worked, she said.

"It's like putting two people in a bank vault, unsupervised, and saying: 'Don't touch anything,' " said Harry Jacobs, an Orlando-area attorney and a Democrat who has filed a lawsuit against Goard and other Republicans. "It's a very cozy relationship they had with the Republican Party."

The disclosures came through a lawsuit that, if successful, would throw out all of Seminole County's absentee ballots--at least 15,000.

About two-thirds of those ballots were cast for Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the GOP nominee. If they were thrown out--still a legal longshot--it would be more than enough to overcome Bush's minute lead in Florida and to hand the election to Democratic candidate Vice President Al Gore.

Printing Error on Postcards

The lawsuit, which could be one of Gore's best shots at winning the White House after a series of legal setbacks, was moved Monday from Seminole County to Tallahassee, Fla., the capital, after both sides agreed to the change.

Weeks before the election, realizing the Florida election would be close and pivotal to the presidential race, local leaders from both parties here sent postcards to voters. The cards offered a simple, pre-printed application for absentee ballots. All voters needed to do was sign the card and send it back, and they would receive a ballot in the mail.

But the Republican version of the postcard--sent to voters who were likely to vote for Bush if they responded--contained an error. A contractor had printed prospective voters' birth dates in a spot reserved for voter identification numbers, said Jamie Wilson, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida.

Under Florida law, that made the ballot applications invalid--unless they were corrected.

Republicans, realizing the mistake, called Goard in late October to ask if they could take the cards from her elections office to correct them. She refused, but when they asked if they could send representatives to her office, armed with laptop computers that contained voter identification numbers, she agreed. They corrected the 4,700 incomplete ballot applications before the end of October and mailed them out.

"You told them, as long as they came in with information from their database, they could fill the information in, correct?" asked Gerald F. Richman, a West Palm Beach attorney who is the lead lawyer for the Democrats, during the deposition. "Yes," Goard replied.

Though the ballot applications already had been rejected and placed in a warehouse, Goard's staff members fetched the Republican postcards out of storage and placed them in a separate box for the GOP representatives. More than 4,500 ballot applications were corrected and ballots were sent to those Republican voters. It is unclear how many of those absentee ballots actually were returned as votes.

Some Democratic ballot applications also apparently arrived without some of the required information, but they were thrown out and Democrats were not provided the same opportunity to make them comply, Democratic attorneys say.

Goard did not accept phone calls placed to her office Monday seeking comment. But Wilson said in an interview that "there was nothing wrong there."

"This was an agreement between the Republican Party of Florida and the supervisor to put the code" on the postcards, Wilson said. "There was just a printing error."

Ken Wright, a state Republican Party attorney, said the lawsuit is the height of hypocrisy. Gore is not a party to the suit, but Wright noted that Democrats are fighting for the inclusion of votes in Democratic strongholds such as Palm Beach County, but are fighting for votes to be thrown out in Seminole County, a Republican stronghold.

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