- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 29, 2000

The Pentagon said yesterday its inspector general will investigate the military's overseas voting system after a Democratic drive to disqualify absentee ballots in Florida exposed flaws in postmarking.

Defense Department spokesman Kenneth Bacon said Pentagon regulations require mail-in ballots to contain a postmark, but he acknowledged that an unspecified number "apparently erroneously" did not receive such a stamp overseas.

Mr. Bacon said Defense Secretary William S. Cohen ordered acting Inspector General Donald Mancuso "to look at the absentee voting process as handled by the military, and to recommend any changes that might be necessary to make it more efficient, more fair and more inclusive, and to make it easier. So, that will happen and I assume that the review will produce recommendations that will be implemented."

The battle between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush for Florida's 25 electoral votes revealed problems in military mail handling and showed how lawyers can exploit those shortcomings to gain votes in an extremely close election.

Democratic lawyers representing the Gore campaign cited the missing postmark to convince local Florida election boards to disqualify hundreds of military ballots opened after the Nov. 7 election. Florida law requires a postmark, but federal law says election panels may accept ballots without the stamp if they are signed and dated.

The systematic operation enraged Republicans as well as service members, who have flooded the Internet with e-mails complaining about the Democrats' tactic. Service members say they cannot always get a postmark on a ship or post. A group of retired officers sent a letter to Mr. Cohen chastising him for not taking up his troops' cause.

Republican lawmakers are vowing an overhaul of the system. Some have traveled to Florida to remind local officials about the federal law.

Since then, several Florida counties took a second look and validated scores of ballots, most of which went to Mr. Bush.

Miami-Dade County alone threw out 110 of 113 overseas military ballots, according to Rep. Steve Buyer, Indiana Republican and chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on personnel.

"The men and women of our military, who literally put their lives on the line every day in defense of our right to vote, had their votes thrown out," Mr. Buyer said. "I will continue to determine whether this was a blatant violation of [federal law] that protects against abuses of this kind."

Mr. Bacon said part of the problem may be that, because ballots are mailed postage-free, they do not get a stamp cancellation mark, or postmark.

"So many of these ballots were not postmarked, apparently erroneously, and that was one of the problems in Florida, that the ballots weren't properly postmarked," he said. "So one of the things the IG will look at, obviously, are the postmarking regulations and procedures, to make sure that there is no gap between what the regulations require and what the procedures produce."

Mr. Bacon said the IG review will include "current standard procedures for overseas handling of military ballots, standard cancellation and postmarking procedures, and any discrepancies between established procedures and how those procedures have actually been implemented."

Of about 3,500 overseas ballots counted in Florida after Election Day, county boards nullified about 1,400 ballots. More than half belonged to armed forces personnel.

Mr. Bush, who explicitly sought the votes of veterans and military personnel during the campaign, garnered 65 percent of 2,130 certified, post-election ballots from abroad.

Democratic lawyers fanned out into virtually every Florida county as the state deadline approached for submitting the last batch of absentee ballots. Republican lawyers say their opponents challenged almost every absentee envelope, even asking canvassers to compare the signature on the ballot with the one on file and then objecting if every 't' was not crossed.

Many service members are angry over the maneuver.

"I can properly describe our attitudes toward the Democrats, specifically Gore, as being of an overtly contemptuous nature and to the point of being furious," said a senior Army enlisted soldier in Germany. "I have contact with hundreds of soldiers each week. I cannot say that even one single soldier displays any level of respect for this man and the actions of the Democratic Party."

The Gore team has been unrepentant. Sen. Bob Kerrey, Nebraska Democrat and a Medal of Honor winner, said if personnel did not fill out the paperwork correctly, then they have no one to blame but themselves.

"In the military, we accept responsibility for our mistakes," Mr. Kerrey said. "We don't blame it on somebody else."

He added: "If I'm not prepared, and I didn't get the word, and I come to my commanding officer and say, 'Gee, I'm sorry, captain, I didn't get the word,' my commanding officer will say, 'Lieutenant, failure to get the word is no excuse.' In the day after these ballot accusations are made, what we're discovering is signatures are not there, voter IDs are not there, addresses are not there, witnesses aren't there. Personally, I think the military should not be treated any differently than any other citizen."

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