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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Democrats to Sue Fla. County for Fixing Republican Ballot Requests

November 30, 2000|SCOTT GOLD and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Opening yet another front in the postelection war raging in Florida, Democrats vowed Wednesday to launch a legal battle over Republican efforts in Martin County to correct several hundred faulty absentee ballot applications threatened with rejection.

The decision to file suit against Martin County, where election officials acknowledged they allowed GOP operatives to fix incorrect voter identification numbers, follows an ongoing court fight over a similar episode in Seminole County.

"What happened here is even more egregious than what we saw in Seminole," said Terence Nolan, state Democratic Party committee member for Martin County. "The elections supervisor actually allowed these applications to be removed from her office. She seems to have acted in a very partisan manner."

Voter officials in the fast-growing Atlantic Coast enclave 75 miles north of Miami defended the decision by elections chief Peggy Robbins, a Republican, to let GOP campaign workers pull the faulty applications from the office for corrections.

"We didn't see a problem with it," said Emma Smith, Martin County deputy elections supervisor. "We felt if the voter took the time to sign it, put a stamp on it and supply the last four digits of their Social Security number, then they wanted to vote."

Republican officials said they were alerted to problems with the GOP-produced applications by county residents who requested ballots but hadn't received them with election day fast approaching.

"We were getting deluged with phone calls," said Bob Belanger, Martin County GOP chairman.

At the elections office, Republicans discovered that some of the applications had been printed with voters' birthdays instead of their correct identification numbers.

Belanger said officials retrieved "a couple hundred" problem applications, plucked the proper identification numbers from a party computer and, within a few days, returned the corrected forms to the elections office.

"The Republican Party took the initiative to follow up on these," Belanger said. "If the Democratic Party didn't choose to, that's their loss."

In fact, the Democrats did not lose many absentee votes because of application errors.

Of the 34 absentee ballot applications that were ultimately rejected by the county, Smith said, just two were issued as part of the Democrats' early ballot drive. Three or four came from the Republicans. The rest were standard applications issued by the county.

Bush got 6,294 absentee votes in Martin County, thumping Gore by better than 2 to 1 in the final tally of the early ballots in the heavily Republican county. Bush won the county overall, 56% to 44%.

Elsewhere in Florida, the updating of ballot applications appeared to be rare, if not nonexistent. A survey by The Times of more than 60 counties in Florida found that no others allowed operatives from either party to correct incomplete absentee ballot applications.

Nolan, the Democratic Martin County committee member, said it remains unclear if an individual lawsuit will be filed in Martin County or in the state capital of Tallahassee. Another option would be to consolidate the legal dispute with the existing lawsuit involving Seminole County, where Democrats are seeking to throw out 15,000 absentee ballots--a move that would push Gore into the lead for Florida's crucial 25 electoral votes.

Seminole County's election supervisor has conceded that she allowed two Republican operatives to use her office to correct at least 2,000 flawed absentee requests from GOP voters.

Just how many Democrats didn't get absentee ballots because their party wasn't afforded a similar opportunity remains uncertain, although attorneys fighting the GOP say they may number in the hundreds.

Republican attorneys, fending off allegations that Seminole County election officials colluded with the GOP to fix the faulty ballot applications, demanded in court Wednesday that they be allowed to depose Vice President Al Gore.

They refused to say why they needed to sit down for a deposition with Gore, who is not a party to the lawsuit. But Republican attorneys have hinted they believe the Seminole County case is being orchestrated by the Democratic Party.

To that end, lawyers for the GOP were mulling the possibility of deposing Harry Jacobs, the voter pushing the Seminole County lawsuit, in an effort to establish any link to the Gore campaign.

Ken Spriggs, Jacobs' attorney, called suggestions of a Gore connection "palpably false." Gerald F. Richman, an attorney for the Democrats, said the GOP request represented an "attempt to confuse and complicate matters to get us off the fast track."

During the brief hearing, Republicans also asked Leon County Circuit Judge Nikki Ann Clark--who has issued several consecutive rulings favorable to the Democrats--to recuse herself. They contend the judge, bypassed by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for an opening on the state appellate court, might have a grudge against George W. Bush.

In private, Republican officials expressed concern over the Seminole County case in general and the judge in particular.

"Judge Nikki is a Democratic political operative," one Bush advisor said Wednesday evening, adding that "there's no way you're going to get a fair shake from her. She's worse than the [Florida] Supreme Court."

*

Times Washington bureau chief Doyle McManus and researchers Edith Stanley, Anna M. Virtue and Lianne Hart contributed to this report.

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