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Presence of absentees strongly felt

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 2000


One of them works out of the basement of his home in Alexandria, Va. That's Tom Fina, director of Democrats Abroad.

The other one works out of a small office in Washington, D.C., with a staff of a handful of college students. That's Michael Jones, director of Republicans Abroad.

It's their job to get the party faithful living overseas registered to vote. Suddenly the fruits of the Fina's and Jones' labors, overlooked in most elections, are being analyzed and anticipated like never before.

More than 7,400 absentee ballots of out-of-country Floridians still have not been counted, according to a survey of 52 of the state's 67 counties done by the Palm Beach Post. Those are the out-of-country ballots received after Election Day, and by law, they won't be counted until Friday, Nov. 17 -- exactly 10 days after the election.

With 327 votes separating George W. Bush and Al Gore, the presidency could be in the balance.

What isn't known is how many of those out-of-country ballots will come in. Any votes postmarked by Election Day and received by Nov. 17 will count. The other thing we don't know: For whom did all those military personnel and expatriates vote?

"I believe this is not only going to turn the election, but will give George W. Bush the popular vote," said Jones. He was speaking of the overseas votes for the nation, not just Florida, where the out-of-country votes could give Bush all the electoral votes he needs.

Jones has been busy crunching numbers and analyzing trends from the last election in which overseas votes from Florida favored Republican Bob Dole. He looks at the military votes, the international business people, and the high-income out-of-country voters, and sees a Republican voting bloc.

Not surprisingly, Fina disagrees.

He cites his own demographics. Fina knows of 5,000 to 8,000 Floridians living in Israel who are registered to vote, and points out that they tend to vote Democrat, especially with Joe Lieberman on the ticket. As for the military, he looks at the backgrounds of the enlisted men and women, and considers the significant NAACP presence in the armed services in Germany, and he sees a big Democratic voting bloc.

"I think the vote is going to tilt it in our direction," Fina said. "(But) there is really no intellectually honest way of predicting that. Anyone telling you otherwise is selling snake oil."

The actual number of out-of-country ballots still to be counted in Florida remains a subject of speculation.

For example, Pinellas County election officials say they have 232 outstanding overseas absentee ballots, including 102 from Republicans, 91 from Democrats and the rest from independents or others. In Orange County, where 1,164 absentee ballots were sent overseas, 591 still are outstanding.

Together the two counties have received 21 ballots since Election Day, which are being kept in vaults for safety until they will be counted Nov. 17.

Those ballots may not seem like much, but in a race that will be decided by hundreds of votes, it could be the difference between Gore and Bush.

Florida's dozens of smaller counties, however, are less likely to influence the ultimate vote total. Jefferson County near Tallahassee issued only eight overseas ballots, and three have been returned and counted. In Alachua County, 422 ballots were sent overseas, and 203 have been returned and counted. Floridians overseas say the interest in the election has been quite high. And with the election still undecided, interest is getting higher.

"We've had people say "I haven't voted in 50 years, but I want to vote this time,' " said Frances Deak, a retired educator from Ocala now living in London, and who helps register Democrats overseas. "I've even heard people say "I didn't vote, but if Florida votes again, can I vote then?' "

James Young in Dublin said his efforts to register Republicans in Ireland have been reasonably successful.

"Remember, this is the land of the Kennedys," Young said. "I've been busy. But Ireland is not normally the place you would look for Republican votes."

John McQueen, a Eustis resident now living in Heidelberg, Germany, said he has "done four to five times as many registrations (for Democrats Abroad) this year." He sent his own absentee ballot to Lake County on Oct. 23.

McQueen said he is scheduled to give a speech at the University of Heidelberg next week on politics in the United States.

Said McQueen: "I guess I'll have to try to explain what's going on with these crazy Americans."

- Times staff writers Brian Gilmer and Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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