Florida nixes unpostmarked ballots


Republicans decried an effort by Florida’s Democratic attorney general to reconsider rejected presidential ballots from servicemen abroad as a belated effort to rectify an embarrassing Democratic move in the state’s pivotal election recount. Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a supporter of the Democrats’ candidate, Vice President Al Gore, sent a letter Monday to county election officials across Florida urging them to count the spurned ballots. Clay Roberts, Republican-appointed director of the State Division of Elections, said the overseas vote was counted and certified by all 67 county elections supervisors and the state has no plans to reopen the issue. “The state canvassing commission is forbidden by law to look beyond those returns,” Roberts said. Democrats challenged hundreds of overseas military ballots in counting last week, pressing for strict enforcement of rules requiring that valid ballots be postmarked on or before Election Day, Nov. 7. Recount teams within the state’s 67 counties threw out more than 1,500 of the ballots on various technical grounds, but it was unclear how many were because military post offices abroad had neglected to postmark them. Republican candidate George W. Bush’s campaign officials and supporters from the military such as retired Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf protested rejection of military ballots as elimination of the voices of probable Bush voters. Bush campaign spokesman Ari Fleischer called Butterworth’s letter “a belated attempt at damage control after Al Gore supporters have already inflicted their damage on America’s military men and women. “It’s unclear this note has any legal status,” said Fleischer. “Instead, it appears to just be a political press release.” The nonbinding letter by Butterworth came after noisy Republican complaints about the treatment of soldiers abroad. Another Southern Democrat and Gore supporter, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, also urged that the military ballots be counted. “Any ballot from a man or woman in the military who is serving this country should be counted — period,” said Miller, a former Marine. “I don’t care when it’s dated, whether it’s witnessed or anything else. If it is from someone serving this country and they made the effort to vote, count it and salute them when you do it.” In his letter to county elections supervisors and other canvassing board members, Butterworth said: “No man or woman in military service to this nation should have his or her vote rejected solely due to the absence of a postmark.” Butterworth has no statutory power to have the votes counted. Orange County senior deputy elections supervisor Margaret Dunn said the board’s attorney advised them to ignore the letter. “It carries no legal weight,” she said. In Okaloosa County, home to Air Force installations and a place with strong military leanings, the rejected overseas ballots won’t get another look. Supervisor of Elections Patricia Hollarn said about 40 overseas ballots without postmarks already were allowed but about 50 were rejected for arriving too late. She said the county election officials had agreed to count the unpostmarked ballots arriving by Nov. 10, three days after the election but not those arriving later. Hollarn, a Republican, said she feels the rejected voters are “victims of the mail” whose ballots should be counted, but she said the county election board would not reconsider them.