- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2000

Florida's Democratic attorney general yesterday urged county election officials to accept hundreds of absentee military ballots that were rejected at the behest of the Gore campaign for technicalities.
"No man or woman in military service to this nation should have his or her vote rejected solely due to the absence of a postmark, particularly when … the postmarking of military mail is not always possible under sea or field conditions," Attorney General Robert Butterworth said in a letter to the state's 67 county elections supervisors.
Canvassing boards in Florida approved 2,199 overseas absentee ballots last week and rejected 1,527. Broward County accepted just 92 of 396 overseas ballots; Dade County just 103 of 312.
Still, Republican presidential nominee Texas Gov. George W. Bush received 630 more absentee votes than Vice President Al Gore, extending his lead to 930 in the state both men need to capture the presidency.
Mr. Butterworth, who was co-chairman of the state's Gore campaign, does not have the authority to order county elections boards to follow his advice. He said election officials should seek a clarifying opinion from Republican Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
Neither Mrs. Harris nor local canvassing boards indicated immediately yesterday whether they would reconsider the rejected ballots.
But state Division of Elections Director Clay Roberts said the state does not plan to reopen the issue since the overseas vote has been counted and certified by county elections supervisors.
"The state canvassing commission is forbidden by law to look beyond those returns," he said.
Still, if the Florida Supreme Court allows hand counts now under way to count in the final certified results, Republicans could appeal to allow the disqualified overseas ballots.
Mr. Butterworth's letter apparently will bring no change in Okaloosa County, which is home to Air Force installations and has strong military leanings. Supervisor of Elections Patricia Hollarn said about 40 overseas ballots without postmarks already were allowed and about 50 were rejected for arriving too late.
She said county election officials had agreed to count the unpostmarked ballots arriving by Nov. 10, three days after the election, but not those arriving later.
Miss Hollarn, a Republican, said she personally feels the rejected voters are "victims of the mails" and their ballots should be counted, but she said the county election board would not reconsider them.
In Orange County, senior deputy elections supervisor Margaret Dunn said their attorney advised them to ignore Mr. Butterworth's letter.
"It carries no legal weight," she said.
Sen. Bob Graham, Florida Democrat who was under consideration earlier this year as Mr. Gore's running mate, said elections officials should bend over backward to accept those absentee military ballots.
"The federal law provides that a postmark is not required for absentee ballots for overseas-stationed military personnel," Mr. Graham said on NBC's "Today" show. "That ought to be the governing rule. The priority and the presumption should be to let every vote count."
Another Southern Democrat and Gore supporter, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, also called for counting of the disqualified military ballots.
"I don't care when it's dated, whether it's witnessed or anything else. If it is from someone serving this country and they made the effort to vote, count it and salute them when you do it," said Mr. Miller, a former Marine.
Meanwhile, veterans groups joined congressional Republicans and Democrats in opposition to the Gore team's strategy of systematically challenging absentee ballots from military personnel abroad for lack of a postmark or other technicalities.
"It is un-American to deny the protectors of democracy their constitutional right to participate in the electoral process," said American Legion National Commander Ray Smith. "I therefore urge Florida election officials to reverse the wholesale invalidation … submitted by U.S. military personnel stationed abroad."
Steven Thomas, a Legion spokesman, said the organization has not received this many complaints since disclosure that Larry Lawrence, a campaign fund-raiser for President Clinton, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery based on a fabricated war record.
"It's a big deal, and veterans are rightly angered about this," Mr. Thomas said.
Members of both parties in Congress said the absentee military ballots should be counted. Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican and a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said his staff is looking into legislative options to correct the situation if the state does not.
"I will not vote to seat any of the Florida electors until this … is sorted out," Mr. Weldon said yesterday in an interview. "This is not the America I grew up in."
Said Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, "I think everybody in or out of the military ought to have the right to vote. We ought to bend over backwards. [The absentee ballots] came in on time. Come on, it's not brain surgery."
Remarks of some Democrats such as Mr. Graham yesterday were closely aligned with those of Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joseph I. Lieberman, who said earlier that neither he nor Mr. Gore supported the effort to discredit military ballots. But Republicans said the Gore team and its supporters were backtracking because their coordinated election strategy had blown up in their faces.
"I think it's because we have exposed what they were doing," said Rep. Tillie Fowler, Florida Republican. "They're beginning to get some backlash."
Mrs. Fowler said in her home base of Duval County, near Jacksonville, 106 out of 594 absentee ballots were rejected. She said 98 percent of the disqualified ballots had been mailed by military personnel: 44 were rejected for no postmark, 37 for an invalid postmark and 19 for an improper or nonexistent witness. She said nine of the ballots came from a helicopter squadron on the carrier USS George Washington.
"It's an outrage," Mrs. Fowler said. "These young men and women didn't make a mistake, but their votes are not being counted. The vice president's operatives in Florida are denying the vote to the very people he wants to command."
Rep. John Cooksey, Louisiana Republican and an Air Force veteran, said Mr. Gore and his supporters "overplayed their hand" by challenging the military ballots.
"They follow the polls, and they realized they had overstepped the bounds of decency," Mr. Cooksey said. "This is all a reflection of Al Gore's ambition. They knew what they were doing. They are more concerned about their control of the executive branch than they are for their country."
Rowan Scarborough contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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