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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Pentagon Reacts to Absentee Ballot Outcry

November 29, 2000|PAUL RICHTER and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Amid a continuing GOP outcry over the exclusion of military absentee ballots in Florida, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered the Pentagon Tuesday to investigate the shortcomings of the military postal system.

Cohen instructed the department's inspector general to look for ways to improve a system that has been held partly responsible for the exclusion of hundreds of military absentee ballots in the presidential race in Florida.

But the study will have no direct bearing on the disputed contest between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore. Any changes will apply only to future elections, Pentagon officials said, a fact not lost on Bush backers.

"This is a good move for the future," said Mindy Tucker, a Bush spokeswoman. "But we need something to rectify votes cast in this election."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday December 20, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Mail ballots--A Nov. 29 story referred incorrectly to the amount of mail carried by the military mail system. It carries 170 million pounds per year.

More than 1,400 overseas absentee ballots were thrown out by Florida election officials for various reasons, including lack of a postmark, lateness or lack of proper signatures.

Republicans contend it was unfair to exclude military ballots of troops overseas, and urged local officials to include them wherever possible. They have alleged that Democratic lawyers pressed local election officials in Florida to strictly observe technical election rules, with the aim of disqualifying some absentee ballots.

Democrats and some local election officials say they simply wanted to follow established rules that absentee ballots contain dated signatures or postmarks.

The overseas ballots were cast 2 to 1 for Bush.

The Pentagon investigation won't delve into the highly sensitive issue of whether election boards acted properly. Instead, it will recommend changes to make the system "more efficient, more fair . . . more inclusive, and to make it easier," said Kenneth H. Bacon, the chief Pentagon spokesman.

"The last thing we want to do is to make it harder for those who are wearing the uniform of the United States of America and serving overseas to cast a ballot," Cohen wrote in a memo to Donald Mancuso, the acting Pentagon inspector general.

Several members of Congress, including Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Stephen E. Buyer (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee, have urged the Pentagon to investigate military ballot procedures, with a focus on postmarking.

The military mail system, which carries 140 million pounds of mail a day, doesn't require postage. Nevertheless, all mail is supposed to be postmarked.

In practice, however, since the mail often bears no stamp, military postal workers "frequently" don't bother to apply a postmark, Bacon acknowledged.

In an effort to reduce fraud, the law specifies that absentee ballots can't be counted unless they have a postmark, or a signature and date.

County canvassing boards in Florida followed those rules when they met Nov. 17 to tally overseas ballots that had been received during the 10-day grace period after election day. Scores of ballots were rejected because they lacked postmarks, outraging Republicans on hand to monitor the process.

Since then, Republicans launched a massive public relations blitz over the rejection of military ballots. They also sued more than a dozen county canvassing boards. Democrats backpedaled, with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman decrying any rejected military ballots and Florida Atty. Gen. Bob Butterworth calling for a reexamination of the castoff votes.

The biggest nudge, some election officials say, came from the Florida Supreme Court. In its ruling last week allowing recounts to go forward in three South Florida counties, the court suggested that canvassing boards should not fall back on "hypertechnical" interpretations of election law, instead allowing the voter a reasonable opportunity to cast a ballot.

Election officials in several counties viewed the court's ruling as an invitation to take another look at the rejected overseas ballots. Last weekend, several hundred overseas ballots were reexamined. The result: Bush increased his lead over Gore by more than 100 votes.

In Escambia County, site of the Pensacola Naval Air Station, Bush gained 36 votes.

In Duval County, home to two big Navy bases, officials agreed to revisit 81 castoff ballots, but only after Bush lawyers agreed to drop the lawsuit against the county. Ballots previously rejected for lacking a postmark were accepted and Bush gained 20 votes.

Rick Mullaney, general counsel to the county elections board, said it is "highly unlikely" any of the ballots were actually cast after election day, when Bush's razor-thin lead in Florida was quickly becoming the talk of the world.

"All of it--the Republican lawsuit, Lieberman's comments, Butterworth's opinion--contributed to us revisiting these ballots," Mullaney said. "But the key thing for us was the Supreme Court decision."

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