Absentee ballots scrutinized
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000
BROOKSVILLE -- Texas Gov. George W. Bush did not win Hernando County on Election Day, but he took a bite of Vice President Al Gore's advantage here Friday when the county Canvassing Board tallied overseas absentee ballots.
Twelve of 17 certified ballots went for Bush, four to Gore and one to Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. In a statewide race that had Bush ahead by only 300 votes, the 3-1 ratio was significant to Republicans who were scratching for every angle to keep that lead and win the presidency.
So important was the outcome that the GOP had stationed a staffer inside the supervisor of elections office for the past week to monitor the absentee ballots as they trickled in, and it paid for an off-duty sheriff's deputy to guard the office and the ballots 24 hours a day.
"We were very well prepared in all counties," said Bob Brooks, an attorney who represented the Republicans at the Canvassing Board meeting.
About a dozen people, half Republicans and half Democrats, gathered in the election supervisor's office about 10 minutes before the Canvassing Board's scheduled 11:30 a.m. meeting. As they waited, Supervisor of Elections Ann Mau reported that the postmaster had confirmed that the only mail of the day had been delivered, and no additional ballots would arrive before the midnight deadline.
Mau also distributed copies of laws that governed the count, and a sample absentee ballot envelope to show how each must be filled in to be considered legal. They had to be mailed by Nov. 7 and come from overseas military post offices or carry a foreign postmark.
She said 97 ballots had been sent to residents outside the United States, and 49 had been received and counted by Election Day. Of the 48 outstanding, 19 had arrived by the Friday deadline and appeared to meet all other requirements.
At 11:55 a.m., the Canvassing Board, staff and gathered watchers entered the chilly tabulation room. They looked at 74 late absentee ballots that would not be counted because they had not been mailed to an overseas or military address, or did not come from outside the United States.
After 10 minutes, Mau turned to the black canvas bag that contained the 19 ballots that would be considered. They had come from as near as Canada and as far as Australia and India.
Pamela Mills, an attorney representing the Gore campaign, asked to examine the signatures on each ballot and compare them to the registration cards the voters had on file. When County Judge Peyton Hyslop came across two ballots that bore no postmark, Mills quickly voiced her objection to counting these.
"Do you want to file a protest or see what we're going to do first?" Hyslop responded.
She decided to wait. Moments later, Hyslop and Mau rejected the ballots as incomplete, because it was not clear that they had been cast by Election Day. State law required either a postmark or a handwritten signature and date on the ballot as proof.
Brooks immediately objected. He said the federal Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Voting Act requires only that the ballots be "carried expeditiously and free of postage." He contended the act supersedes state statute.
"If you exclude these ballots . . . you're going to disenfranchise these military people," Brooks argued, noting that the soldiers had no way of guaranteeing that a postmark would appear on their ballots.
But the law is the law, retorted Al Jenkins, chairman of the Hernando County Democratic Party. Hyslop and Mau agreed, reaffirming their decision to disqualify the ballots. Brooks filed a formal protest.
The Gore representatives then challenged a third ballot that did not appear to have a clear postmark. Mau and Hyslop denied that effort, however, because the voter had signed and dated the ballot on Nov. 2.
After 45 minutes, the Canvassing Board had dealt with all ballot challenges. It presented a statement certifying that no party or person had asked for a manual recount of the ballots, at the Republican Party's request.
Then came the count. Mau sliced open each envelope, and Hyslop removed each ballot. They read the votes and certified the results, and the meeting ended.
Before leaving, Brooks reflected on the Democratic effort to keep some ballots from being counted.
"I think it's hypocritical for the vice president to take the position that all votes should be counted, then when it comes to our military service members they raise a technical objection over the lack of a postmark," he said. "Their will is thwarted on a procedural objection by the Gore campaign."
Not so, Mills responded.
"I agreed wholeheartedly with Judge Hyslop's opinion of the law," she said.
"I don't think the Gore campaign said they wanted to count every vote if there were legitimate legal reasons for discounting the ballots. . . . That was the case here on these two votes."
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