Report Questions Fla. Absentee Ballots

Broward County, Fl. canvassing board member Judge Robert Rosenberg uses a magnifying glass to examine a disputed ballot on 11/24/00
A New York Times investigation into overseas ballots that helped George W. Bush win the presidency found that Florida election officials, facing intense GOP pressure to accept military votes, counted hundreds of overseas absentee ballots that failed to comply with state election laws.

In a six-month investigation of the 2,490 overseas ballots accepted after Election Day, the paper found 680 questionable votes.

But while that number is greater than Bush's 537-vote victory in Florida, the paper concluded that Bush still would likely have defeated Al Gore even if those flawed ballots had been discarded.

Gary King, a Harvard expert on voting patterns and statistical models, concluded that Bush's winning margin would most likely have been reduced to 245 votes if the overseas votes had been thrown out. There was only a slight chance that discarding the questionable ballots would have made Gore the winner.

It was impossible to simply count the questionable votes because the ballots themselves are separated from the envelopes containing voter information.

The paper found no evidence of fraud by either party, though it did interview voters who admitted they had cast illegal ballots after Election Day. It found no support for suspicions that the Bush campaign had organized an effort to solicit late votes.

After the uncertain results of Nov. 7, both Gore and Bush began high-pressure postelection campaigns to eke out a victory. The importance of overseas ballots — and particularly military votes — quickly became apparent.

The paper documented a successful effort by Republicans to count the maximum number of overseas ballots in counties won by Bush, particularly those with a high concentration of military voters, while seeking to disqualify overseas ballots in counties won by Gore.

Counties carried by Gore accepted two in 10 ballots that had no evidence they were mailed on or before Election Day. Counties carried by Bush accepted six in 10 of such ballots. Bush counties were four times as likely as Gore counties to count ballots lacking witness signatures and addresses.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told the Times: "This election was decided by the voters of Florida a long time ago. And the nation, the president and all but the most partisan Americans have moved on."

Officials with the Gore campaign did not immediately respond to calls from the Associated Press.

Of the 680 flawed ballots, the paper found: 344 ballots with no evidence they were cast on or before Election Day; 183 ballots with United States postmarks rather than overseas postmarks; 96 ballots lacking the required signature or address of a witness; 169 ballots from voters who were not registered, who failed to sign the envelope or who had not requested a ballot as required by federal law; five ballots received after the Nov. 17 deadline; and 19 voters who cast two ballots, both of which counted.

The total number of flaws exceeds the number of uestionable overseas ballots because many of the envelopes had multiple defects.

Although Bush held a fluctuating lead throughout the 36 days of recounts and court fights after Nov. 7, the Florida Department of State's Web site shows that if none of the overseas absentee ballots were counted after Election Day, Gore would have won Florida by 202 votes, and retained Democratic control of the White House.

Benjamin L. Ginsberg, national counsel to the Bush campaign, recalled those days as being "as hardball a game as any of us had ever been involved in."

Judge Anne Kaylor, chairwoman of the Polk County canvassing board, said the combination of Republican pressure and court rulings caused her board to count some ballots that would probably have been considered illegal in past years.

"I think the rules were bent," said Kaylor, a Democrat. "Technically, they were not supposed to be accepted. Any canvassing board that says they weren't under pressure is being less than candid."

Ginsberg said, "We didn't ask anybody to do anything that wasn't in the law as it existed on Election Day."

While both the Postal Service and the Pentagon worked hard to ensure the timely delivery of absentee ballots to Florida, the Bush campaign soon began to pressure the Pentagon, the paper said.

Ginsberg faxed a letter to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, the only Republican in the Clinton cabinet, on Nov. 11 urging that ballots be collected immediately.

In the end, the vast majority of the ballots — 97 percent — arrived before the Nov. 17 deadline. In previous elections, according to records and interviews, as many as a third arrived after the 10-day window had closed.

The Times also found a substantial number of people who knowingly cast their ballots after Election Day. Of the 91 voters interviewed whose ballots had either missing or late postmarks, 30 acknowledged marking ballots late. Only four were counted.

While the Bush campaign loudly criticized a Gore supporter's memo that laid out a strategy to challenge overseas ballots, the Bush team had its own such strategy, the Times reported.

Worried about talk of absentee ballots for Gore coming from Florida voters in Israel, as well as losing any military ballots considered likely Bush votes, a Bush overseas-voter team was headed by Warren Tompkins, the consultant who had overseen Bush's South Carolina primary win over then-insurgent candidate John McCain.

A Bush campaign memo laid out a two-pronged strategy — telling Bush lawyers how to challenge "illegal" civilian votes that they assumed would be for Gore and also how to defend equally defective military ballots, the Times said.

Ginsberg acknowledged that they had fought for military ballots while opposing ballots from civilians. Others involved in the campaign denied it.

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