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Butterworth urges revisiting ballots

The state attorney general asks officials to reconsider overseas ballots that had been thrown out.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 21, 2000


Attorney General Bob Butterworth sent a letter to Florida's elections supervisors on Monday attempting to ensure that no military ballots were rejected in error simply because they lacked a postmark or a dated signature.

It appeared to be a magnanimous gesture by the state's top Democrat, and one that might even add to George W. Bush's vote total.

But elections supervisors said that Butterworth's memo has no practical effect except perhaps as an attempt to grab the moral high ground and put Secretary of State Katherine Harris in a tight spot.

"The only reason he's doing this is because of all the flak they're getting for rejecting all those military ballots," said Fred Galey, elections supervisor in Brevard County, where 31 ballots were rejected. "It's a Trojan horse; don't fall for it."

With the letter Monday, Butterworth seemed to side with prominent Republicans and military leaders who railed at Democrats for seeking the rejection of large numbers of military ballots that lacked postmarks.

The attorney general wrote: "No man or woman in military service to this nation should have his or her vote rejected due to the absence of a postmark."

Those ballots, he wrote, should be counted if they are postmarked no later than the date of the election, or they are signed and dated no later than Election Day. Butterworth urged officials to "revisit this issue and amend their reported vote totals, if appropriate."

But few, if any, of the ballots from overseas are dated. There is no spot on the envelope or the ballot itself where a voter is instructed to write in a date.

Still, Butterworth's advisory letter got lots of attention in Florida's supercharged political environment.

The Associated Press, which moved a bulletin shortly after Butterworth sent out his memo, called it a "capitulation" by the attorney general. Network news anchors wondered aloud whether Butterworth's letter could result in such a large lead for Bush that the recounts in South Florida would become moot.

Elections supervisors said they weren't fooled.

"This is a political act; that's all it is," said Patricia Hollarn, elections supervisor in Okaloosa County, which tossed out 48 ballots Friday.

Hollarn and others said they did not have to revisit the issue, as Butterworth urged. Many of the ballots received from the military did not bear a postmark, because postage was not charged for delivering the ballot.

And if ballots bore no postmark, it is highly unlikely they would bear a date. In some cases, like a ballot in Hernando County, canvassing boards already agreed to accept those few overseas ballots without postmarks but with dated signatures.

Several supervisors said they had none with a date on the envelope.

"We had 136 ballots and not one had a date on it," said Pam Iorio, supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County.

Some supervisors questioned whether Butterworth was trying to do something other than remind elections officials of the law.

"I don't know how to say this politely, but who the hell does he think he is telling the supervisors of elections how to do their jobs," said Gene Crist, assistant supervisor of elections for Bay County, where 10 overseas ballots were rejected because of no postmark.

"This is designed to put (Harris) in a bind. If she accepts these after the date, then why wouldn't she accept the recount votes? She can't win."

Secretary of State Harris, a Republican who supported Bush for president, has rejected any new vote totals based on recounts in predominantly Democratic counties in South Florida. Butterworth's letter could force Harris to either reject a handful of military ballots or waive the deadline for final results, allowing the addition of a few votes from the military.

Democrats would be certain to jump on that, pointing out that Harris has previously said the deadline for general election returns could not be waived.

But first, some supervisors have to ask for Harris' opinion as Butterworth urged. By Monday evening, that apparently had not happened.

Butterworth spokesman Joe Bizarro said the attorney general was not acting in a partisan manner, but that "he was concerned over reports that some of these ballots might not be counted when they should be counted."

Bizarro pointed out that Butterworth's letter was not a formal legal opinion, but an advisory letter. Butterworth, who served as the state chairman for the Gore campaign, came under fire last week when he issued a legal opinion that contradicted a decision by Harris, who openly supported Bush for president.

Bizarro said the attorney general routinely writes advisory letters to public officials, clarifying the law. But he said he had to go back to 1991 to find another example where the attorney general wrote a letter to an elections supervisor, and that was a letter to one supervisor, Kurt Browning in Pasco County, on an unrelated matter.

"If you're asking me if this is unusual," Bizarro said, "I would have to point out that we're in very unusual circumstances here the last couple of weeks."

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