Overseas ballots suddenly crucial
By STEPHEN HEGARTY
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000
Floridians who cast absentee ballots while serving in the military or working overseas could provide the wild card of the 2000 presidential election.
But it likely will be several days before we know whether there are enough of them to tilt the race to George W. Bush or Al Gore.
Overseas absentee ballots must be postmarked by Election Day but can arrive as late as 10 days after the election and still count. So while elections officials scrambled Wednesday to recount the nearly 6-million votes cast in Florida, they don't have the complete picture yet.
Less than 2,000 votes separate Bush and Gore, so overseas ballots could make the difference.
When asked whether it might take the full 10 days before we know the results for Florida, and therefore the nation, Clay Roberts, director of the state division of elections, simply said: "Theoretically, yes."
The problem is that state elections officials don't know how many out-of-country ballots to expect. They didn't even try to answer that question Wednesday; the entire nation was awaiting the results of Florida's massive recount.
Gov. Jeb Bush and others spoke Wednesday of the potential importance of the out-of-country ballots. But the governor said that, curious as he is, he wants to step back and let the elections officials do their jobs.
Judging by results from the last presidential election, Republicans might be optimistic about the out-of-country votes.
Four years ago, Florida had 2,227 out-of-country absentee votes cast. They favored Republican Bob Dole, even though Bill Clinton carried the state that year.
Though statewide totals are unavailable, this year's numbers likely are much higher.
Frances Deak, voting registrar for Democrats Abroad in London, said that two weeks ago she sent about 1,000 write-in ballots to Americans in London who said they had not received absentee ballots from their home states.
A retired teacher, Deak is registered to vote in Ocala. She mailed her ballot, supporting Gore, more than two weeks ago.
The Department of Defense reports that some 27,241 Florida residents in the military are stationed overseas. How many of those requested ballots?
A survey of a few Florida counties shows that thousands of absentee ballots were sent overseas, to both military and civilians.
In Hillsborough County, 1,584 ballots were sent overseas. Most of them, 986, went to military. The majority of those went to registered Republicans. Some 598 went to civilians working or visiting overseas, and the majority were Republicans.
In Pinellas County, 248 out-of-country ballots were sent out.
In Broward County, 1,598 ballots were requested, and most of those went to non-military. In Duval County, 612 were requested. In Citrus County, 70 out-of-country ballots were requested.
Many of those ballots are already in, and some have been counted. In Hillsborough County, Sharon Smith, the manager of absentee services, said 899 ballots had already been returned, and were counted. Those that arrive after Election Day will be held until the count is done after the 10-day deadline.
Normally, overseas absentee ballots are an afterthought. The numbers usually are small, and national elections often are won by wide margins. The belated count of the overseas ballots, 10 days after the excitement of Election Day, usually goes unnoticed. But the 2000 presidential election is anything but normal.
Roslyn Soltz, a 73-year-old retiree who moved from Miami to Jerusalem five years ago, suddenly finds herself as one of the most important voters in the world. She sent in her absentee ballot two weeks ago.
"Inconceivable," Soltz exclaimed. "I know they say that every vote makes a difference, but who would imagine?"
Soltz said she and her husband voted for Gore.
- Staff writers Julie Hauserman and Shelby Oppel contributed, and information from Knight Ridder was used in this report.
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