- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

The Democratic candidate for president wielded more power than anyone else in the five weeks after Election Day, according to Bill Sammon, White House correspondent for The Washington Times, in his new book, "At Any Cost: How Al Gore Tried to Steal the Election."
In this second of three excerpts, he details how the Gore legal team plotted to throw out the votes of Florida servicemen and women serving overseas.


Navy Lt. John Russell was awakened at 3:30 a.m. by the night duty officer aboard the USS Tarawa, an amphibious assault ship sent to help retrieve the terrorist-crippled destroyer USS Cole off the coast of Yemen.
As he crawled out of his bunk in the wee hours that Saturday, Nov. 18, Lt. Russell was startled to hear that his wife, Mary, was on the phone.
The duty officer had tried to tell Mary Russell that her husband was sleeping, but she insisted he be awakened. She had used the emergency number given to spouses of sailors. Something major must be wrong back home in Jacksonville, Fla.
Lt. Russell, 40, was disoriented when he heard his wifes voice. The Tarawa was 8,000 miles from Jacksonville, and the connection had a distracting voice delay.
Mrs. Russell explained that she had just gotten home when she received a phone call from a woman at the Duval County elections office who said her husbands absentee ballot in the presidential election had been disqualified at the urging of Democratic lawyers on behalf of Vice President Al Gore, the partys presidential nominee.
A few minutes later, Mrs. Russell told her husband, she got a call from a man with the Republican Party. He confirmed that Lt. Russells ballot had been disqualified — along with hundreds of others that the Democrats had protested.
It was 7:30 p.m. Friday in Jacksonville, and the Republicans acting on behalf of their nominee, George W. Bush, were in the midst of a fierce battle with the Democrats down at the elections office. They had been fighting since 9 that morning and looked nowhere close to being finished.
"I was hot," Lt. Russell recalls. "Here I am, deployed overseas. Ive done everything I can to cast my ballot properly. And I find out my vote doesnt count because of a lousy postmark — even though they received it before Election Day."
John Russell is one of those rare Navy officers who came up through the ranks of enlisted men. Ten years and three months it had taken him to earn his commission.
In early November, Lt. Russell was in the midst of a six-month deployment to the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean aboard the Tarawa, which he calls "40,000 tons of twisted steel and sex appeal."
The unexpected detour to Yemen — after the terrorist bomb blew 17 fellow sailors on the Cole to bits — was just part of the job to this career Navy man. In fact, when his assault ship arrived on the scene, Lt. Russell volunteered to man a tugboat that eased the crippled Cole out of the harbor to safety.
Such unpredictability had a lot to do with the appeal of the armed services. Lt. Russell never knew exactly where he was headed next. Thats why he had made a point of voting for president so early.
He had arranged for the Duval County elections office to send him an absentee ballot. It arrived Oct. 1, in a batch of mail delivered by truck on the Tarawas last day docked at a Thailand port. By the time he opened the ballot, the Tarawa was steaming through the Indian Ocean toward the Arabian Sea.
"One of the things Ive learned when youre deployed overseas is the time it takes the mail to get back," Lt. Russell says. "I dont care how quickly you throw it in the mailbox. It can take up to 30 days to get back to the States. So as soon as I got my absentee ballot, I got it witnessed [and] dated, and threw it back in the mailbox."
Helicopters often must chase down Navy ships to pick up and deliver mail. A chopper caught up with the Tarawa in the Middle East about a week after Lt. Russell dropped off his absentee ballot with the ships postal clerk.
The ballot, along with the rest of the ships mail, was choppered north across the Arabian peninsula to the tiny Persian Gulf archipelago of Bahrain. From there it was loaded aboard a military transport plane and flown to the United States, where it was dumped into the civilian postal system on the East Coast and made its way south to Florida.
Lt. Russells ballot arrived at the Duval County elections office Nov. 6, the day before the election — right about the time he was helping play host to the grief-stricken sailors of the Cole and allowing investigators to take over his office on the Tarawa.

A sick feeling

John Russell took voting seriously. His reverence for this fundamental exercise of democracy was instilled in him at Fairfax High School in suburban Washington, where one of his teachers was a delegate to the Virginia state legislature.
"He showed us how important it is to vote," Lt. Russell recalls. "We were tasked in our senior year to write a bill to get something changed. Well, vehicle inspections in Virginia used to be every six months. We got it changed to a year. Thats my claim to fame.
"Ever since then, Ive voted. I havent missed an election yet. Heres my cut on it: If you dont vote, youre voting. Youre just saying you dont care what happens."
Like most Navy ships, the Tarawa picked up the Armed Forces Network broadcast, which provides sailors in far-flung locales with a taste of American television. In addition to sports and movies there was a nightly news feed from CNN. In the days after the election, Lt. Russell had watched with amazement as his home state of Florida erupted into all-out political war over the presidency.
As the days stretched into a second week, his fascination turned to horror. CNN reported that Democratic lawyers had mounted an organized campaign to disqualify overseas ballots cast by military personnel. They were attacking several types of ballots, including those that arrived without a military postmark.
Lt. Russell hurried to the Tarawas onboard post office. He asked the mail clerks whether his ballot had been postmarked. They told him no. The only absentee ballots they had bothered postmarking were the ones that sailors mailed in the final days before the election. The clerks had sent those via express mail.
But the ballots mailed weeks ahead of time, including his, had not needed a postmark. After all, federal law required that military ballots from overseas "shall be carried expeditiously and free of postage."
Lt. Russell got a sick feeling in his stomach. He had voted in every presidential election since he was old enough, in 1980. He fervently hoped his vote would be counted this time as well.
Then came the call from his wife early Nov. 18, saying his ballot was thrown out at the urging of Democratic lawyers.
"Oh, I was torqued," Lt. Russell says. "Especially after that Palm Beach crap. They werent confused about the ballot. And yet it looked like their votes were going to be counted. But to hell with the military.
"I commenced firing," he says. "Hard."

Smoking gun

Years before Ed Fleming became a lawyer in Pensacola, Fla., he was a reporter for the European edition of Stars and Stripes newspaper, which is owned by the Defense Department. The experience came in handy Wednesday, Nov. 15.
Mr. Fleming was among the small army of Republican lawyers that mobilized to help George W. Bush stave off Al Gores desperate quest to overturn the election. That Wednesday morning, he received a phone call from the GOPs legal command center in Tallahassee.
"There was a rumor that there was going to be concerted, organized opposition to try to keep out the military votes, and so they asked me if I would monitor the situation here in northwest Florida," Mr. Fleming says. "I knew the county attorneys around here, so I called Tom Dannheisser, whos the county attorney in Santa Rosa County."
Mr. Dannheisser passed along a tantalizing piece of information: He had just received a five-page memo from a Democratic lawyer — dated that day — outlining the Democratic game plan for disqualifying military ballots. Its author was Mark Herron, a lawyer who had lost his job at a Tallahassee law firm for enlisting in Mr. Gores postelection army.
"Herron distributed what obviously was intended to be a confidential memo to their lawyers, to give them reasons to challenge the ballots," Mr. Fleming says. "But one of the attorneys that they hired locally to do that said, 'Well, gee, this seems good. Ill just send it to the county attorney in advance, so hell know what points Im going to make at the canvassing board meeting.
"So he sent it to the county attorney of Santa Rosa. It was one of the dumber lawyers that had been retained by the Florida Democratic Party," Mr. Fleming quips.
Mr. Fleming asked Mr. Dannheisser whether he had received this memo in his capacity as county attorney. When Mr. Dannheisser answered yes, Mr. Fleming said he was making an official request for the memo, now a public record. Mr. Dannheisser told him to put the request in writing. By Thursday, Mr. Fleming was holding the Gore teams "smoking gun."
He pored over the document, which instructed Democratic lawyers to make pettifogging objections to military ballots, especially those not postmarked. Having spent several years as a Defense Department employee in Europe, Mr. Fleming knew mail often was sent without a postmark. He began to formulate arguments to counter the Democrats antimilitary campaign.
"I sent the memo up to Tallahassee that afternoon, and it all started from there," Mr. Fleming recalls with a chuckle.

Little cheat sheet

Upon receiving the Herron memo, the Bush command center in Tallahassee blast-faxed it to Republican lawyers in all 67 Florida counties. The military ballots were to be publicly tallied the next day by canvassing boards across the state.
Nowhere would that battle of the ballots be fiercer than in Duval County, home to more military families than any other county in Florida. Tens of thousands of active-duty sailors were based at massive installations like Mayport Naval Station and Jacksonville Naval Air Station. A huge chunk of the Atlantic Fleet, including the USS John F. Kennedy battle group, called Duval County its home port.
So it was no surprise that Duval had more absentee ballots from overseas than any other county — 618 of 3,500 cast statewide. Neither was it a surprise that five Gore lawyers showed up at the elections office at 9 a.m. Friday to disqualify as many of those ballots as possible.
Tom Bishop is one of the Republican lawyers who volunteered to counter the Gore assault in Duval. He grew increasingly angry as he watched the Democrats, armed with the Herron memo, systematically disqualify large numbers of military ballots.
"They had their little cheat sheet they were using, and they objected on every single possible ground they could, no matter how spurious," Mr. Bishop says. "It was so bad that there was rolling of the eyes by even some of the Democrats there who were watching their lawyers work."
Prior to Nov. 17, the supervisor of elections checked signatures on ballot envelopes against signature cards on file. He determined that only two absentee ballots could not be included because the signatures did not match.
But now the Democrats insisted that they be allowed to compare all signatures, one by one. For seven tedious hours, they bitterly argued that signatures on more than 100 envelopes did not precisely match the signature cards — although some envelopes had been signed by sailors on rolling seas in hostile situations.
"You could clearly tell it was the same persons signature, but they would object because it didnt have a certain curlicue or didnt have a certain twist or it was smaller," Mr. Bishop says.
Even more infuriating were attempts by Democrats to disqualify military ballots that had no overseas postmark. The ostensible logic was that some voters might have marked their ballots a day or two after the election and then mailed them in.
But the Gore lawyers took this argument to absurd lengths by actually disqualifying ballots received before Nov. 7. One belonged to a sailor named John Russell, whose vote was unceremoniously thrown out.
"I dont know how somebody in the Sea of Japan or the Indian Ocean could have miraculously gotten it here on the sixth of November if it was supposedly mailed after the election," Mr. Bishop says. "The whole idea behind the foreign postmark is to make sure its timely."

Challenging every vote

The Gore lawyers protested ballots on which the return address of the attesting witness was incomplete. They railed against ballots on which foreign postmarks were smudged or partially illegible.
"Our goal was to challenge every vote that didnt appear legitimate," says Mike Langton, Gore campaign chairman for northeast Florida.
By 7 p.m., the Democrats had lodged protests against 147 absentee ballots. The canvassing board agreed to hear formal arguments from the Gore and Bush camps.
Circuit Judge Brent Shore, chairman of the Duval County Canvassing Board, expressed incredulity at the tactics of Gore lawyer Leslie Goller, who went first. It was Judge Shores 27th wedding anniversary, and he had promised to take his wife to dinner. Now it looked as though he would spend the rest of the night listening to Democratic objections.
"I want to make sure that I understand your position," Judge Shore told Ms. Goller. "As I understand your position, if a service person in Germany avails himself or herself to free postage through the military, provides the absentee ballot on or before November 7th to be mailed in the normal course of through the military postal system, or otherwise, and they get the free postage, if that absentee ballot envelope —probably unbeknown to the person who mailed it — does not bear a postmark on it, even though its otherwise proper, your position is that is an invalid ballot and we should not consider it. Is that correct?"
"That is our position," Ms. Goller replied.
Judge Shore and the other board members spent the next three hours examining the 147 ballots the Gore lawyers wanted to throw out. This was followed by hour after hour of wrangling, bad pizza and stale coffee.
At 4:11 a.m. — more than 19 hours after it began — the nightmarish battle over Duvals military ballots came to an end. Duval was the last of Floridas 67 counties to complete the arduous task. When the canvassing board announced that the ballots of 149 soldiers, sailors and airmen had been disqualified, a pair of jubilant Gore lawyers exchanged high-fives.
A Republican, visibly shaken by this sight, demanded to know how they could celebrate the disenfranchisement of U.S. military personnel risking their lives around the world. One of the Gore lawyers glibly replied: "A wins a win."

'Bad form'

Of the ballots that were counted, 318 went for Mr. Bush and 151 for Mr. Gore. Thus, Mr. Bush netted 167 votes in Duval, his biggest single gain in the county-by-county tallying of overseas ballots. He netted another 493 votes in the other 66 counties, giving him a one-day total of 630. Overnight, Mr. Bushs 300-vote lead more than tripled to 930.
Still, Republicans were angry that the vice presidents team had succeeded in disqualifying 1,420 ballots statewide — or more than 40 percent of the 3,500 cast. They vowed to go to court to resurrect as many of those ballots as possible.
Particularly incensed was Mr. Bushs running mate, Richard B. Cheney, who had overseen the Persian Gulf war as secretary of defense. Of all the dirty tricks attempted by Mr. Gore during the postelection struggle, Mr. Cheney considered this the dirtiest.
"I have strong feelings about the right of our people in uniform to vote — and they, perhaps, above all others," Mr. Cheney told this reporter. "Theyre out there putting their lives on the line for us. For the other camp to pursue a conscious strategy to try to disqualify their ballots, I thought, was bad form."
As for those ballots the Bush lawyers managed to include, they attributed much of their success to their sneak peek at the Herron memo, which provided a road map of the Gore strategy. But the memo paid even greater dividends in the all-important public relations war.
The episode had turned into a fiasco for the Gore camp. The vice president was getting creamed in the press. He had no choice but to dispatch his running mate, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, to do damage control on the Sunday morning political talk shows.
Incredibly, the plan was for Mr. Lieberman to stick to his guns and defend the massive disqualification of military ballots. He was prepped on this strategy by no less an authority than Mark Herron himself, who spoke with Mr. Lieberman and other Gore officials in a conference call from Tallahassee late Saturday.
But when faced with the pointed questions of Tim Russert on NBCs "Meet the Press," Mr. Lieberman began to waver from his prepared script.
"Will you today, as a representative of the Gore campaign, ask every county to relook at those ballots that came from armed services people and waive any so-called irregularities or technicalities which would disqualify them?" Mr. Russert demanded.
"I dont know that I have that authority," Mr. Lieberman hedged. "I dont believe I do legally, or in any other way."
Although Mr. Lieberman was one of the most zealous crusaders in the postelection debacle, he was also a shrewd enough politician to realize he had been sent on a fools errand. He began to signal his ambivalence.
Asked whether he knew anything about Mr. Herron, Mr. Lieberman said no — even though he had talked with him the night before. He also tried to distance himself from Mr. Herrons controversial memo.
"I checked with our campaign last night when I heard about this, because I was upset about it," said Mr. Lieberman, who was careful not to mention it was Mr. Herron he consulted. "Ive been told that the directions to our personnel were pretty much the same as the Republican people had, which is: Just make sure the law is followed. Thats all."

Part I: Networks' early call kept many from polls


Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide