Bush's Overseas Bonus?

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris talks with Attorney General Bob Butterworth during a Cabinet meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla.,Thursday, Nov. 16, 2000. (AP Photo/Pete Cosgrove)
A top Florida Democrat has sent a letter to the Sunshine State's 67 counties, telling election officials that they "should count" overseas ballots in the presidential race that bear no postmark - but Republican George W. Bush's camp is skeptical of the move.

On the surface, Monday's letter by Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, an ally of fellow Democrat Al Gore, could add more votes for Republican Bush, who widened his lead over the vice president in the state to 930 votes after winning a larger chunk of the overseas ballots last week.

"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," Butterworth said in the letter to the state's 67 county elections supervisors and other canvassing board members.

Bush gained 1,380 votes among overseas absentee ballots compared to 750 for Gore, but the Republicans nonetheless complained because some 1,000 overseas ballots were thrown out for lack of a postmark and other problems.

Butterworth - who was co-chairman of Gore's campaign in the Sunshine State - directed county election officials to count overseas ballots if there is a postmark no later than the Election Day - or if the ballot is signed and dated no later than the election date.

"Canvassing boards should count overseas ballots which are from qualified military electors and which bear no postmark if the ballot is signed and dated no later than the date of the election," he wrote.

Butterworth's letter said his office "urges supervisors and canvassing boards to seek a clarifying opinion from the Secretary of State if they have any questions on this matter after review of the authorities cited in this letter."

Bush campaign officials and supporters from the military such as retired Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf protested rejection of military ballots as elimination of the voices of probable Bush voters.

Ari Fleischer, Bush campaign spokesman, called Butterworth's letter "a belated attempt at damage control after Al Gore supporters have already inflicted their damage on America's military men and women.

"It's unclear this note has any legal status," said Fleischer. "Instead, it appears to just be a political press release."

The nonbinding letter by Butterworth came after noisy Republican complaints about the treatment of soldiers abroad.

Another Southern Democrat and Gore supporter, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, also urged that the military ballots be counted.

"Any ballot from a man or woman in the military who is serving this country should be counted - period," said Miller, a former Marine. "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."

Butterworth has no statutory power to have the votes counted.

Orange County senior deputy elections upervisor Margaret Dunn said the board's attorney advised them to ignore the letter. "It carries no legal weight," she said.

In Okaloosa County, home to Air Force installations and a place with strong military leanings, the rejected overseas ballots won't get another look. Supervisor of Elections Patricia Hollarn said about 40 overseas ballots without postmarks already were allowed
but about 50 were rejected for arriving too late.

She said the county election officials had agreed to count the unpostmarked ballots arriving by Nov. 10, three days after the election but not those arriving later.

Hollarn, a Republican, said she feels the rejected voters are "victims of the mails" whose ballots should be counted, but she said the county election board would not reconsider them.

Last week, Mark Herron, a Tallahassee lawyer helping shepherd Democratic presidential election lawsuits through the local courts, sent a five-page letter to Democratic attorneys throughout Florida giving them tips on how to lodge protests against overseas ballots.

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