St. Petersburg Times Online: Election 2000
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Pasco board quickly counts handful of absentee ballots

Within an hour, the board counted the 19 absentee ballots and sent the tally in a packet to Tallahassee.

[Times photo: Janel Schroeder]
As County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, left, and Sylvia Young and County Judge Robert Cole look on, Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning inspects an absentee ballot from New Jersey on Friday. It was not from overseas and was not counted.

By CHASE SQUIRES

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 18, 2000


DADE CITY -- Usually no one shows up to watch the Pasco County Canvassing Board leaf through the handful of ballots that drift in from across the oceans in the days after an election.

But there hasn't been much of the usual in this year's vote.

More official observers showed up for Friday's count -- 22, including Republicans, Democrats and reporters -- than there were votes. Counties had until midnight Friday to count absentee ballots mailed in from military personnel and others in foreign countries.

After an hour of protests, legal arguments, complaints and objections, Texas Republican Gov. George W. Bush gained 13 votes in Pasco County to Democratic Vice President Al Gore's 6.

The move closed the gap by seven votes.

Pasco County's official final tally stands at 69,570 for Gore, 68,595 for Bush -- a difference of 975 votes.

Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning said Friday's big crowd, filling folding chairs set up in his office for the occasion, was far from normal.

"This is a first," he said. "There have been a lot of firsts this go 'round."

The Canvassing Board decided to count 17 overseas ballots they agreed were properly submitted, but rejected 28 others. The panel also accepted two county absentee ballots that were properly submitted by the Nov. 7 deadline, but were somehow overlooked when the Canvassing Board met on Election Day.

Twenty-five of the rejected ballots were federal write-in ballots that are only used as a fail-safe if a voter asks for an absentee ballot but it doesn't arrive by election day. The ballots the board rejected were submitted by people who never asked for an absentee ballot in the first place, Browning said.

Two others ballots were rejected, one because it was mailed from New Jersey, where the voter was apparently stationed; the other because it lacked a required witness signature.

Each step was met with questions and objections from supporters of the opposing parties in this year's tight election.

Attorney Clyde Hobby spoke for Gore, asking that the newfound county absentee ballots be rejected. Attorney John Renke argued for the Bush campaign, demanding the board allow the federal write-in ballots to be counted.

County Judge Robert Cole, a member of the board, warned both men repeatedly that they were not allowed to argue verbally with the board, but they could submit written objections.

With their objections noted and their right to challenge preserved on the record, both Hobby and Renke said they would likely take no more action on the matter unless the balance of the election hinges on them.

After the count, Cole said he understood both sides want to win and said he wants everyone to have a say, but the rules of the state are clear.

"We don't want to reject any ballots. We'd like to accept all of them," Cole said. "But we can't. The law is the law."

When the board closed the meeting at 5:55 p.m., 53 minutes after it met, Browning had a smile on his face. The election, for him, is over, he said. The tally was secured in an overnight mailer and prepared for shipment to Tallahassee.

By 6:20 p.m., the packet was in the hands of United Parcel Service driver Aaron Allen.

Two minutes later, he pulled out of the County Courthouse parking lot.

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