WASHINGTON — In an extraordinary get-out-the-vote effort that helped put George W. Bush in the White House, Florida's Republican Party mounted an aggressive appeal to party faithful--complete with a letter from Gov. Jeb Bush--to cast absentee ballots before the Nov. 7 election.
"Vote from the comfort of your home," Jeb Bush urged in the letter, which was superimposed over what appeared to be an image of the state seal.
And vote they did. A survey of Florida's 67 counties shows that more than 700,000 Florida voters--or almost 1 in 8--voted absentee.
George W. Bush, the governor's brother, captured about 125,000 more absentee votes than his Democratic rival, Al Gore.
That margin dwarfs Bush's official 537-vote edge in the Sunshine State. And Florida in turn put Bush over the top in the electoral college.
The gigantic but largely invisible absentee ballot blitz was the GOP's secret weapon in the Florida campaign. But it was almost entirely overlooked during the suspenseful five-week recount of the Florida vote last fall, when the presidency hung in the balance.
Republicans say it was a smart, successful gambit. But some Democrats believe it took unfair advantage of both the governor's office and the absentee voting process.
Under Florida law, voters could cast absentee ballots only if they were unable to go to their regular polling places on election day. But Jeb Bush's letter didn't say that (although the absentee ballot application that came with it did). Many voters appear to have cast their ballots absentee merely as a matter of convenience, as Bush's letter suggested.
Moreover, Florida law forbids using the state seal for partisan purposes.
Two civil suits were filed challenging the Republican absentee voter drive. Both were dismissed, and one of the judges suggested that criminal prosecutions might have been more appropriate. Local prosecutors took no such action.
Some Republican operatives admit that if either of the civil suits had prevailed, enough absentee ballots could have been thrown out to swing the election to Gore.
"It was a hidden time bomb," Barry Richard, George W. Bush's lead attorney in Tallahassee during the recount period, acknowledged in a recent interview. "It was our first battle, but nobody noticed it. And it could have ended the whole case."
By national standards, the incidence of absentee voting in Florida was not exceptionally high. In California, for example, 1 in 4 ballots last November was absentee.
But in Florida, absentee voting may never have been more common. While 1 voter in 8 voted absentee last year, only 1 in 11 did in 1996. The 700,000-plus absentee ballots cast in Florida last year exceeded the total in the 1996 presidential race by nearly 50%. Of the additional 690,000 votes cast in Florida in 2000 over 1996, absentee ballots accounted for one-third.
In virtually every county, Bush ran far stronger among the absentees than among those who turned out at the polls on election day.
In Florida's largest county, Miami-Dade, Gore rolled to a nearly 47,000-vote victory on election day. But among the absentees, Bush outpolled Gore by more than 7,000 votes, reducing his countywide margin to fewer than 40,000.
David Leahy, the county election supervisor, said he had no doubt that Jeb Bush's letter--and the accompanying ballot application--drove the high GOP absentee turnout.
"A lot of people voted absentee ballots because of it, and it might have been the difference in the election," Leahy said. "The people who received these letters acted on them. We got a significant amount of response to them."
Florida's GOP spent $500,000 producing the letter and mass-mailing it to Republican voters. The envelopes urged voters to "Please open immediately. . . . Important message from Governor Jeb Bush enclosed." Next to that was the headline, "Vote by Mail"; next to that, a picture of a mailbox.
The letter, over Jeb Bush's signature, was titled: "From the Desk of Governor Jeb Bush; Vote From the Comfort of Your Home."
The letter was superimposed over what appears to be the state imprimatur, the Great Seal of the State of Florida.
"Dear Fellow Republican," the letter began. "It has been an exciting year in the state of Florida." The letter noted GOP efforts to reduce taxes and at the same time improve education, health care and the environment.
"You may vote early by requesting a mail-in ballot by using the request card attached," the letter said. The card said the undersigned would not be able to go to the polls on election day.
"Simply sign the card, provide the last four digits of your Social Security number, as required by law, and mail it in today," the letter instructed. "Within a few weeks you will receive your ballot material. You may then vote from the comfort of your own home."