Facebook Twitter

Did GOP pressure fail to sway count?

SHARE Did GOP pressure fail to sway count?

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida elections supervisors on Sunday acknowledged discrepancies in how strict they were in deciding whether to accept overseas ballots in the presidential election.

But several supervisors denied Republicans pressured them to accept ballots from overseas military personnel likely favoring George W. Bush.

The New York Times reported Sunday that Republicans pressed election officials in GOP-leaning counties to accept overseas absentee ballots that didn't comply with state election laws and sought to have overseas ballots disqualified in counties won by Al Gore.

"This story confirms our worst fears about the Bush team's campaign to manipulate the Florida vote," said Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "It proves that President Bush was determined to win by any means necessary, including violating the spirit if not the actual letter of the law."

But in response to The Times' story, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "This election was decided by the voters of Florida a long time ago. And the nation, the president and all but the most partisan Americans have moved on."

The Times published results of a six-month examination of the 2,490 overseas ballots accepted after Election Day. It found 680 questionable votes, most of which lacked a required postmark.

Four of five questionable ballots were accepted as legal in counties carried by Bush, although the newspaper could not determine for whom those votes were cast. Bush won by a final tally of 537 votes.

In heavily Republican Okaloosa County in the Panhandle, officials initially rejected several ballots, then later counted ballots without proper postmarks, elections supervisor Pat Hollarn acknowledged.

But ballots were reconsidered only because the county was under federal court order to do so, she said.

In a case brought by Republicans, U.S. District Judge Lacey A. Collier ordered six counties to reconsider overseas ballots rejected for lack of a postmark or date or for other reasons.

"You don't ignore a federal judge," Hollarn said. "We allowed the Republicans and Democrats to file their protests. We took note, filed them away . . . and did what we thought was right."

Supervisors agreed with The Times' assessment that counties approached overseas absentee ballots differently.

"It substantiates what a lot of people already know — that the election was a story of 67 counties with different procedures, different canvassing boards and different outcomes," said Pam Iorio, elections supervisor in Hillsborough County, which includes Tampa. Iorio acknowledged the pressure canvassing boards felt but said it came from both sides.

"There was a great deal of pressure in every county," Iorio said. "I thought it was extremely important that we adhere to the law and be consistent with how we apply the law."

But while Okaloosa initially relied on a state law that prohibited counting ballots without postmarks, other counties relied on a 1975 Florida Supreme Court case that set specific technical guidelines for counting absentee ballots.

"Some kind of leaned on the court case, which says as long as it is absent of fraud, count it," said Kay Clem, supervisor in Indian River County. "It kind of obliterates the absentee ballot laws."

Brevard County elections supervisor Fred Gailey, whose county includes Patrick Air Force Base, said the duress he felt came from the Gore camp.

"The only pressure I received was from Democrats not to count any of them," Gailey said. "They objected to everything.

But Gailey said he too ignored the pressure, and that he relied on the 1975 court precedent that dictated the acceptance of more ballots.

Supervisors hope changes made by Florida's Legislature will help them avoid a similar situation in the future.

A law passed after the election says that "for absentee ballots received from overseas voters, there is a presumption that the envelope was mailed on the date stated and witnessed on the outside of the return envelope, regardless of the absence of a postmark on the mailed envelope or the existence of a postmark date that is later than the date of the election."

In the future, all absentee overseas ballots must also include a warning to voters that they must write the date they filled out the ballot and that it must include a witness's signature.