St. Petersburg Times Online: Election 2000
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It's Bush, 34; Gore, 6

That's how many votes they picked up from Citrus' overseas absentee ballots.

By JIM ROSS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000


INVERNESS -- The overseas absentee ballots from Citrus County have provided 34 more votes for George W. Bush, six more for Al Gore and four more for Ralph Nader.

photo
[Times photo: Ron Thompson]
Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill and county Commissioner Jim Fowler, a member of the Canvassing Board, discuss a ballot Friday as overseas absentee ballots are counted.
The Canvassing Board inspected and opened the ballots during a sometimes-tense hearing Friday afternoon inside the Supervisor of Elections Office. Representatives and lawyers from both political parties observed the exercise, which lasted about 90 minutes.

There was no discussion of the larger issues at hand, just a painstaking review of ballots, envelopes, postmarks and voter signatures.

But if anyone needed a reminder of the ongoing election saga, it came at the session's midpoint, when Ocala lawyer John Piccin received a call on his cell phone. He spoke excitedly for a moment, then informed the crowd that the Florida Supreme Court had enjoined Secretary of State Katherine Harris from certifying the state's presidential election totals until the court reviewed the matter.

In Citrus, more than 57,000 ballots were counted, and then recounted, during this presidential election. The overseas absentee ballots were from Citrus residents who live abroad, usually because they are serving in the military.

Citrus elections officials counted 51 of those overseas absentee ballots that were received before Election Day. The results from those ballots were included in the vote count that Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill already had submitted to the state.

On Friday, the three-member Canvassing Board reviewed the 53 overseas ballots that arrived after Election Day but by Friday, which was the legal deadline.

The board rejected nine of the 53 ballots because of various problems: Four did not have the required signature from a witness; one included a voter signature that did not match the signature elections officials had on record; the others had problems with postmarks or dates.

Piccin, the Ocala lawyer, was representing the Democratic Party. He objected to 14 additional ballots, mostly because they were not postmarked.

His Republican counterpart, Rob Horton from Texas, argued that the ballots remained valid if they included a voter signature and date, which also could include a date stamp that the elections office affixed once staff received the ballot.

The Canvassing Board sided with the GOP's position and counted the ballots.

The board is composed of county Commissioner Jim Fowler and Gill, both Republicans, and County Judge Mark Yerman, who is a registered Democrat. County commissioners and elections supervisors run in partisan contests; judicial races are non-partisan.

The session began at a desk in Gill's office. One of Gill's senior staffers, Maureen Baird, sat down, took ballots one by one and then presented them to the board members, who stood behind her. Piccin and Horton were the only authorized spokesmen for their parties, although both sides had numerous other lawyers and observers in attendance.

Baird would call up a voter's registration record on a computer screen. Board members and the lawyers would inspect each ballot, searching for the voter's signature, a signature and address from the witnessing party and for a date and/or postmark.

The computer record included a copy of the voter's signature card, which the people matched against what they found on the ballot.

Tension hung in the air as the laborious process grinded along. No point was too small to raise.

"Look at the "JR' in "junior,' " Horton said at one point, referring to a stylistic difference in the signature record for voter Barry Bennett Jr. and the signature found on Bennett's ballot.

"None of us here are handwriting experts," Gill said at another point.

Piccin registered his objections, which a court reporter duly noted.

Once the ballots were ready for counting, the group moved to a table in back of Gill's office, where the envelopes were opened and the ballots were stacked so that no one knew which ballot came from which voter.

- This story includes information from Times wires.

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