- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 21, 2000

When vote counters arrived Friday in heavily Republican Duval County, five lawyers from the Al Gore camp stood poised to contest virtually every military ballot waiting to be opened.

During a 19-hour process that ended Saturday at 4:30 a.m., the Gore team challenged the authenticity of signatures, dates and addresses. They got one Navy lieutenant's ballot thrown out. The officer wrote on the envelope he could not get a postmark on his ship before sending it to Florida.

"The big story here is this was a systematic, heavy-handed effort by the Democrats to eliminate absentee military ballots," said Jim Post, a Republican attorney who fought the Gore challenges. "That was clear from the beginning of the day." Mr. Post said he has never seen such a concerted campaign to disqualify overseas ballots.

In the end, the Democrats succeeded in knocking out 64 military voters. This meant Texas Gov. George W. Bush likely lost 30 to 40 votes from Duval alone, based on the fact he took nearly 70 percent of the 542 military ballots approved by the three-member canvassing board.

Duval, home to a large Navy base in Jacksonville, was a microcosm for what went on in Florida's other 66 counties on Friday as Democratic lawyers successfully nullified hundreds of votes from sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines, Republicans charged. As proof, they cite their own experiences and a strategy memo written by a Democratic lawyer in Tallahassee.

But Doug Hattaway, a Gore spokesman, denied there was any such strategy.

"Both sides had observers there, and it's a very bipartisan process," Mr. Hattaway told the Associated Press.

"Bush didn't get what people expected," Mr. Hattaway said. "He got like 600, and we're happy about that." Mr. Bush netted 630 votes from the final overseas ballot count.

A Democratic lawyer who led the Gore effort in Duval County did not immediately return a phone call yesterday.

Mr. Bush's official 930-vote lead in Florida could have been hundreds of votes higher if not for the Gore challenges. Florida's counties tallied the last remaining overseas ballots Friday and reported them by Saturday's noon deadline.

The Gore legal offensive drew a sharp rebuke yesterday from the nation's two largest and best-known veterans groups, the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The final tally showed 1,527 overseas absentee ballots got tossed, while 2,199 survived, of which Mr. Bush garnered about 65 percent.

Mr. Post and another Republican lawyer in Duval, Tom Bishop, said they were amazed at the range of technicalities Democratic lawyers cited to discard military votes. At one point on Friday, the Democrats had the election board compare ballot signatures with signatures on file. The Democrats then claimed some signatures were fraudulent because every t was not crossed or every i dotted, Mr. Post said.

Democrats succeeded in getting a handful of ballots thrown out because they arrived one and two days after the election, he said, even though common sense said the form must have been filled out before Nov. 7, Election Day.

Democrats also tried to convince the Republican-controlled board to check computers to see if service members requested their ballots in the correct way. The board denied that request.

"The ballot would be examined front and back by the Democrats for any defect and they were raising things like inadequate addresses for attesting witnesses or that the address wasn't as detailed as they wanted it to be," said Mr. Bishop. "There was no question in any one's mind that with any defect they were going to raise an objection. Whoever was directing them truly wanted to disqualify military ballots."

Mr. Post said that when the canvassing board agreed to keep out ballots, "the Democrats squealed with joy."

The lawyers said federal and state laws give election boards the discretion to count a military ballot even when the envelope postmark is missing, provided the ballot is signed and dated. This is because military personnel are not always able to get mail postmarked at a small outpost or ship. But Democrats objected anyway and succeeded in getting some tossed out, the lawyers said. They said if the Democrats had not objected, the board likely would have accepted some of them.

Mr. Post said he did not challenge any military ballots in Duval nor did Republicans lawyers in other counties.

Before the overseas absentee counting began Friday, Gore spokesmen asserted that they would win the military vote. They said the vice president would attract votes from minorities in the enlisted ranks.

But at the same time, Democrats were orchestrating a statewide effort to knock out overseas votes, Republicans say. A Democratic lawyer in Tallahassee circulated a memo to lawyers beforehand listing all the technicalities on which service members' votes could be disqualified.

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