Count of ballots ruled by minutiae
By STEPHEN HEGARTY
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000
The overseas ballot count on Friday helped George W. Bush extend his lead over Al Gore, but only after lawyers from both campaigns waged a vote-by-vote dogfight over every questionable ballot.
Armed with Florida law, federal codes and even an affidavit from a military postal officer, lawyers argued in nearly every Florida county over missing postmarks, illegible dates and signatures that didn't look quite right.
As the day wore on, more than a thousand ballots were tossed out, most of them due to Democrats' objections. Questionable ballots that got a thumbs up in one county got a thumbs down in another. The high-stakes vote count tested weary election workers and brought out the lawyers' talents for splitting hairs.
Late Friday night, three counties -- Brevard, Duval and Jackson -- still had not completed their counts.
"The absolute strict compliance (with the law) can reach absurd proportions," said Jim Post, a Jacksonville lawyer representing the Bush campaign in Duval County, where the vote count went late into the night. "Today we reached absurd proportions."
Florida's confusing elections law again cast a large shadow. When it came to postmarks, lawyers for the Democrats cited Florida law, which requires a postmark. Republicans argued federal code to argue the opposite. Both sides won a few and lost a few.
"I can't believe they don't have a uniform way of doing this," said Terry Kroner, whose ballot was disqualified in Hernando for lack of a postmark.
Reached in Kaiserslautern, Germany, where her husband, Michael, is a master sergeant in the Air Force, Mrs. Kroner said they very much wanted to have a say in this election. Theirs were two votes for Bush.
Laywer Bob Brooks, representing the Bush campaign in Hernando, argued in vain to have the ballots included.
Weren't the Democrats the ones who wanted every single vote to count? Brooks asked.
The ballots are from Florida voters who are overseas, many in the military. They must be sent by Election Day and received within 10 days of the election to be counted.
In Hillsborough County, there were 136 ballots to contend with.
The canvassing board worked methodically, envelope by envelope, sometimes squinting through a magnifying glass to discern smudged and faded date stamps. Steve Burton, a lawyer working on behalf of the Republicans, urged them not to throw out ballots that appeared to have been sent on time but bore erroneous dates.
"This is a travesty to not allow the person to vote because the date is defective," Burton told the board.
Republicans urged the board to include many of the 89 ballots the supervisor of elections' office had already deemed improper. Democrats fought to have about 15 more tossed out, alleging everything from illegible dates on the envelopes to voter signatures that didn't seem to match signatures on file.
In one case, Chris Griffin, an attorney and regional chair for the Gore campaign, argued a ballot should be excluded because it came in by courier and lacked a proper postal stamp. That elicited grumbles from Republican supporters in the room.
"Everyone smile," chastised Judge James Dominguez, one of the three-member board. "Life is good."
The Bush campaign was looking forward to the count in Duval County.
Jacksonville is home to two naval bases and more than 21,000 active-duty military personnel, and there were 498 overseas ballots at stake.
Bush wasn't disappointed, taking the lion's share.
But first, each of those ballots went through the wringer. The ballot count was a more than 14-hour microcosm of the battle between the two presidential campaigns bent on taking every last vote left in Florida.
Each party took two lawyers and a party official into a cramped office at 9 a.m. Friday and spent the rest of the day holding each unopened ballot up to look for any mistake that would send the ballot from vote to trash.
"Florida law is clear and it must be followed," said Leslie Goller, a Jacksonville attorney for Gore's campaign who said disputed ballots must not be counted.
"We trust our military," said Mike Hightower, the northeast Florida regional campaign chairman for the Bush campaign.
The Pinellas County canvassing board got started at 2 p.m., and the task immediately slowed as campaign representatives contested 27 ballots.
Some were signed and dated, or postmarked after Nov. 7. Others arrived without a foreign postmark, arrived from overseas with a domestic postmark, or had no postmark at all.
A few ballots were salvaged, including one that appeared to arrive without a postmark. The board later decided that a set of vertical and horizontal lines sufficed.
"Well, as far as I know, that's how Australia does its postmark," said County Judge Patrick Caddell, a member of the three-person canvassing board.
With so few ballots, the canvassing board bypassed the machine count and opted for a hand count.
"Here we go," said Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark when the board came across its first dimpled ballot.
The ballot was passed to Caddell.
"I don't do pregnant chad," he said.
Bush picked three votes to every one for Gore in conservative Escambia County, but even more were tossed out.
Democrats had planned to challenge nearly half of the 272 absentees received at the Escambia elections office. Ultimately, 112 were disqualified, many with domestic postmarks or questionable signatures.
Though Democrats are a majority in Escambia County, they tend to vote Republican, and the votes counted Friday largely were overseas military absentees from men and women deployed out of Pensacola's naval air base.
Attempting to launch a pre-emptive strike against the Democratic ballot challenges, Republicans on Friday afternoon delivered to the Escambia County attorney's office a legal brief outlining why questionable ballots should be included in the count.
That set the tone. The debates, the disqualifications and the count took six hours.
In Palm Beach County, the canvassing board took two hours to count 52 overseas ballots.
The whole time, scores of volunteers who had been summoned to count Palm Beach's 462,000 regular ballots sat and waited. They were being paid $7.50 an hour to do nothing. One woman took a nap; another read a romance novel.
"Can anyone outside wonder why this board has gotten so bogged down?" asked Judge Charles Burton, the canvassing board chairman.
He told lawyers that they could examine overseas envelopes, but "we can't spend 20 minutes on each ballot."
Several rejected ballots were sent from Las Vegas, Phoenix, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
The board also rejected a ballot from Israel because a date on the postmark could not be read.
"Unfortunately, (we) can't read that," said canvass board member Carol Roberts, a county commissioner. Dennis Newman, an attorney for the Gore campaign, challenged the decision.
After all the counting, the heavily Democratic county added only 22 votes to Gore's tally -- not nearly enough to offset Bush's gains in counties in North Florida.
- Staff writers Alicia Caldwell, Chase Squires, Monique Fields, Christopher Goffard, David Karp, Jeffrey S. Solochek, Eric Stirgus, Thomas Tobin and Matthew Waite contributed to this report.
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times election desk
From the Tampa Bay area
From the AP