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Fix urged in absentee case

A statistician suggests tossing out just some of the Seminole ballots. Democrats object to the handling of applications for them.


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 7, 2000

TALLAHASSEE -- All along, a key question in the case of the Seminole County absentee ballots has been whether the solution fits the problem.

Lawyers hoping to disqualify the ballots acknowledge they must prove substantial wrongdoing in the handling of a couple of thousand absentee applications to get all 15,215 ballots thrown out.

On Wednesday, the first day of trial in Leon Circuit Court, lawyers for the plaintiff gave the judge a fall-back position:

A statistician testified that the judge could toss a percentage of ab-sentees, a range divined through statistical analysis.

The Seminole County matter, in which closing arguments are set for this afternoon, is one of two similar actions that moved forward Wednesday in Leon Circuit Court.

In the other, a Martin County case, arguments resumed Wednesday evening with the lawyer for the challengers accusing Republican election officials of participating in "a sinister, underground conspiracy" to help George W. Bush.

Judge Terry Lewis planned to resume early today if necessary in that case, which seeks the disqualification of nearly 10,000 absentee votes.

The frenetic trial schedules, a result of looming electoral deadlines, prompted long hours and makeshift work conditions that left lawyers and their staffs exhausted.

Republican legal teams occupied a part of the hallway outside the courtroom, spreading their work across the floor and feverishly highlighting court documents in yellow.

"I apologize that you all have to work so hard, but under the circumstances we don't have much choice," Lewis told lawyers in the case.

Both actions are complicated by the anonymity of the voting process.

Even if a judge determines Republicans got preferential treatment by being allowed to fill in missing voter identification numbers on a relatively small percentage of applications, would it be fair to throw out all absentees cast in the election?

J. Bradford DeLong, a $500-an-hour Harvard-educated statistician, analyzed voting patterns, exit polls and party affiliation and used statistical models to come up with a range.

He told Judge Nikki Clark she could disqualify between 1,504 and 1,779 votes for Bush in Seminole County.

That, he said, would eliminate the pool of ballots that came from tainted applications.

It's a significant number, given that the official vote difference between Bush and Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore is only 537 votes.

The mission for DeLong, a hulking man who testified with arms folded across his chest, was to predict how many of the 1,932 ballots cast by Republicans whose absentee applications were corrected by a Republican Party staffer ultimately would have voted for Bush.

One of the key legal tests centers on whether the alleged misconduct changed the outcome of the election.

"I think that yes, it did change the outcome of the election," said DeLong, a professor at University of California, Berkeley.

Lawyers for the defendants, the Seminole elections supervisor and the county canvassing board, scoffed at his opinions.

"He was a $500-an-hour psychic," said Gregory McNeill of Orlando.

"Those were voodoo statistics," said Terry Young, the lead defense lawyer, also of Orlando.

However, Gerald Richman, attorney for the plaintiffs, said DeLong came up with a fair number that has a high degree of certainty.

He said DeLong's suggested remedy also would give the judge a reasonable alternative to throwing out all 15,000 absentees.

DeLong's testimony was part of 71/2 hours of proceedings that stretched into the evening. Richman also spent a considerable amount of time attacking the credibility of Sandra Goard, the Republican elections supervisor who allowed Republican Party staffers unusual access to her office for more than two weeks to fix the applications.

Richman cited what he called contradictions in her accounts.

In a deposition, Goard said she could not recall the name of the state-level Republican who had telephoned to ask whether a staffer could set up shop in her office.

However, Jim Stelling, the deputy chairman for the state Republican Party, said in a sworn statement that Goard had told him it was Todd Schnick, political director for the party.

"She knew these people by name but wouldn't tell us the truth of what happened," Richman said.

About the judge

Name: Judge Nikki Clark

Age: 48

Appointed: 1993 by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Background: Clark was the first black and the first woman named to the 2nd Judicial Circuit, a north Florida region that includes Leon County and the city of Tallahassee. She is a graduate of Wayne State University and Florida State University College of Law in 1977.

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