Irregularities in Seminole County could cost GOP dearly

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Irregularities in Seminole County could cost GOP dearly

By John Pacenti, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer Monday, November 27, 2000

A challenge to throw out all absentee ballots in Seminole County took a back seat for weeks as the forces of Al Gore and George W. Bush fought it out over recounts and revotes in more populous South Florida.

Yet, the lawsuit filed in the Republican suburban enclave north of Orlando ticks like a time bomb in the unprecedented post-election-day scramble for Florida's 25 electoral votes and, ultimately, the presidency.

On Wednesday a circuit judge in Sanford will hear arguments on whether to throw out 17,000 absentee ballots, putting thousands of Bush votes in jeopardy.

"The hand-counting could pale compared to this," said Nat Stern, a professor of law at Florida State University.

Bush gained more than 10,000 absentee ballots in Seminole. Gore got about 5,000. If all the absentee votes are tossed out, Gore could win Florida and the presidency. An illegal favor? Longwood resident Harry Jacobs' suit pivots on a favor that Seminole elections chief Sandra Goard did for the Republicans. Goard allowed two GOP operatives to add voter identification numbers to more than 4,000 flawed absentee ballot applications that had been rejected before the election. The workers were then allowed to resubmit the corrected applications.

Jacobs says that violated a strict 1998 Florida law -- enacted after rampant absentee ballot fraud surfaced in Miami -- that says only the voter, an immediate family member or legal guardian may fill out an application for an absentee ballot.

Two years ago, the state election office ruled that it was OK for political parties to mail and collect the absentee applications, but the voters or their close relatives or guardians must provide clear identifying information, including their voter registration numbers.

But because of what went on in the Seminole elections office, Jacobs argues that the absentee process was so tainted that all of the ballots must be disregarded.

Goard initially described Jacobs' accusations as "absurd," but under questioning last week by his lawyer, she admitted to allowing Republican worker Michael Leach and another GOP activist into her office for about 10 days prior to the election.

For judge, a tricky situation

The Republicans came in after Goard received a call from the GOP in Tallahassee saying a mistake had been made on tens of thousands of pre-printed absentee ballots sent out to party faithful.

Democrats also sent voters pre-printed applications, but the Republican mailings had voters' birth dates on the form instead of the required voter registration numbers.

Circuit Judge Debra Nelson has already rejected Republican efforts to dismiss the suit. But a new wrinkle emerged over the weekend when it was learned the judge had the same absentee ballot problem in her own September primary.

Her campaign manager, Robert Lewis, a Republican and deputy chief clerk for the Seminole County court system, said that Nelson's campaign also forgot to put ID numbers on absentee ballot applications. About 5,000 forms were amended by Nelson's campaign.

Without those ID numbers, the applications were invalid under Florida law. "Only the voter or a member of the immediate family or the legal guardian can request an absentee ballot," the top of the application for Seminole's absentee ballot reads.

If someone other than the voter fills out the absentee form, it's a third-degree felony.

Jacobs hasn't asked Nelson to recuse herself, although the judge could step down on her own.

Created from Miami problems

Jacobs' attorney, Gerald Richman of West Palm Beach, says he is anxious to get the case heard and feels Nelson is a good judge.

"I think our case may be the strongest case pending and have the strongest chance of success," Richman said.

He plans to use the Republicans' own standard against them.

The strict requirement for absentee ballots was passed by the state's Republican-controlled legislature in the wake of Miami's absentee scandal in the 1998 mayoral race. Xavier Suarez had been elected, but a judge threw out the absentee ballots -- hundreds of which had signatures that didn't match the alleged voter's handwriting and at least one that was signed by a dead man. The judge handed the office to Joe Carollo, the incumbent who had lost to Suarez.

Richman contends what happened in Seminole is essentially the same. "It's analogous with what happened in Miami," he said. "It's basically fraud."

GOP shenanigans?

The lawyers for Goard and the GOP have said they did nothing wrong, and point out that the ballots themselves are not at issue -- only the applications.

Jim Hattaway, who had been representing Goard and the Seminole County canvassing board, did not return phone calls. Richman says Hattaway has given notice that he must leave the case because of a conflict of interest.

Richman also has raised the specter of Republican shenanigans. He said Goard, a Republican, has admitted the two GOP operatives were left alone in a room full of computers. They had their own laptop, he said.

"They had no supervision and nobody checked them in or out," said Richman, who contends that as many as 4,700 applications may have been improperly amended.

The Bush and Gore campaigns are already battling on several fronts in state and federal court. But Stern, the FSU professor, says the Seminole County suit just may have the stamina to succeed.

"Both Bush and Gore have raised rather tenuous federal claims," said Stern. "But this is a substantial constitutional claim. If proven correct, it would have significant chance of succeeding."

So far the Democrats haven't paid much attention to Seminole County, leaving Jacobs and Richman to fight it themselves.

Bush, the Republicans and the elections chief all have attorneys.

"Basically, we have three large law firms against us," Richman said. "I hope Democrats' sympathies are strongly with us, but we could use more help."

Meanwhile, Goard's lawyers are seeking to have the case dismissed or transferred to Tallahassee. A hearing is set for 8 a.m. today in Sanford before Judge Nelson.

-- me me me me me (dem@rep.ind), November 27, 2000

Answers

Monday November 27 1:25 PM ET

Seminole Vote Challenge Moved to Florida Capital

SANFORD, Fla. (Reuters) - A lawsuit seeking to throw out 15,000 absentee ballots cast in Florida's Seminole County was transferred on Monday to the state court in Tallahassee handling other challenges in Florida's presidential election, a court official said.

Throwing out those votes in Seminole could swing the state from Republican George W. Bush (news - web sites) to Democrat Al Gore (news - web sites).

The case had been set to go to trial on Wednesday in the Seminole County Circuit Court in east-central Florida. It was moved to the Leon County Circuit Court in the state capital of Tallahassee by agreement of all parties involved, Deputy Court Administrator Kate Leach said.

Bush was certified by state election officials on Sunday as the winner in Florida by 537 votes, giving him enough electoral votes to claim the presidency if the results withstand a flurry of legal challenges.

Bush won 10,006 absentee votes in Seminole County to Gore's 5,209.

A Seminole County Democrat, Harry Jacobs, sued on Nov. 17 to disqualify all of the county's absentee ballots, something that could throw Florida to Gore.

Jacobs alleged that the county election supervisor, a Republican, broke the law by allowing Republican party volunteers to fill in missing data on about 4,700 absentee ballot requests that might otherwise would have been rejected as incomplete.

Applicants were supposed to list their voter identification numbers on the ballot request forms, but many did not and the Republican Party workers filled them in at the election supervisor's office, Jacobs' lawsuit alleged.

Florida's Republican Party and several absentee voters joined the lawsuit and asked Seminole County Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson to dismiss it. Jacobs asked that it be reassigned to another judge.

Nelson held a brief hearing to discuss those requests on Monday and during a recess ``both sides got together and agreed for the entire case to be moved to Leon County,'' Leach said.

The court in the state capital often hears complaints contesting Florida election results, even if they arise from other judicial districts.

Gore's lawyers filed documents in that court on Monday contesting presidential elections in three other Florida counties, Miami-Dade, Nassau and Palm Beach, saying thousands of votes there were not counted and could have changed the outcome of the election in Gore's favor.

-- (moved@to.capital), November 27, 2000.


Where's the outrage over this?

-- Tarzan the Ape Man (tarzan@swingingthroughthejunglewithouta.net), November 27, 2000.

I dunno'.....I've been jumping up and down, referring to this situation for days but nobody's really taken an interest. I guess it just isn't high enough on the radar screen....yet. Probably because the media is giving all the attention to the Gore-initiated lawsuits and the Seminole County case was filed by an individual. But hey, in a few more days it should get to court and I'm sure we'll be hearing LOTS more then. At least, let's hope so!

-- Stay (Tuned@GOPFraud.com), November 27, 2000.

It seems to me that if people are honestly concerned about voter fraud as opposed to their guy's lead being threatened, those folks would be all over this one.

Also, if there were an actual pro-Gore bias in the media, this story would have had massive airplay by now.

-- Tarzan the Ape Man (tarzan@swingingthroughthejunglewithouta.net), November 27, 2000.


Tarzan, there isn't a pro-Gore bias in the media. It's a liberal bias. From what I see the media dislikes Gore but I don't know the reason.

If this Seminole County incident was such a big deal, why hasn't Gore taken it on? He seems to be concentrating on Palm Beach and Dade, not paying much attention here. If Gore were to raise the issue, the media would cover it.

This can open a whole can of worms. If the courts go with the dems here, then what about the convicts who were registered and voted, what about the hatians who were "forced" to vote for Gore, what about all the other irregularities? Throwing out all these votes will disenfranchize voters, contradicting the dems touted goal. What would be a "fair and accurate" outcome to this lawsuit?

-- Maria (anon@ymous.com), November 27, 2000.



It's my understanding that the Gore team has avoided "dog pile" lawsuits; i.e., filing suit where one is already in progress. Of course, one could turn the question around and ask, "If the voting convicts and Haitians are a concern, why hasn't a law suit been filed?"

-- Tarzan the Ape Man (tarzan@swingingthroughthejunglewithouta.net), November 27, 2000.

Tarzan, you already know the answer to that one. I leave it as an exercise to the reader.

-- Maria (anon@ymous.com), November 27, 2000.

Apparently dead people are on the rolls also. And that is the specific irregularity that caused the Miami mayoral election to be overturned and a new vote taken.

-- (@ .), November 27, 2000.

Actually, there was one absentee vote that was attributed to a dead man. AFAIK, there was no re-vote in the Miami mayoral election, just an overturn. The judge threw out all of the absentee ballots, which overturned the election.

-- Tarzan the Ape Man (tarzan@swingingthroughthejunglewithotua.net), November 27, 2000.

A political chess player looking at this election game board can see that more likely than not the end result of this game is a stalemate. Politically a stalemate is explosive and chaotic.

We will have a constitutional crisis. I stand by my speculation that Clinton will be the Prez on 1/21/01. I will not at all be surprised if the UN has some involvement in this "situation" as I speculated on 11/11/00

We will see.

(dontcha think Bill C is loving this??)

-- Imaginative (I know it @ll.com), November 27, 2000.



PRESIDENT      % CHANCE
Bill Clinton    1%
George Bush    28%
Al Gore        50%
Denny Hastert  20%
Kofi Annan      1%


-- (@ .), November 27, 2000.

If this Seminole County incident was such a big deal, why hasn't Gore taken it on?

Gore wants to win by ADDING votes to his tally not take them AWAY from Bush, which would occur in the Seminole County suit if Harry Jacobs prevails. Gore is walking a very cautious public relations tightrope that hesitates to "disenfranchise" any voters.

-- Get (TheCheating@GOP.com), November 27, 2000.


The media silence on this is very puzzling. I know the GOP lawyers are saying zilch about their strategy. Maybe everyone is so nervous no one is giving out anything to report?

I read today that the Gore campaign is considering joining this suit after all.

Some backgroud material from the NYTimes, November 13:

Fla. Nov. 13 In the weeks before the presidential election, Florida Republicans mailed party voters tens of thousands of requests for absentee ballots that were virtually completed, requiring only the applicant's signature and Social Security number.

The aim was to drive up absentee voting for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. But problems emerged. Many of the forms provided by the Republicans lacked the voter registration number required by Florida's tough anti-fraud election laws.

Election officials in several counties said in interviews today that they had supplied the missing number on the forms and sent out absentee ballots to voters.

In Seminole County, just north of Orlando, Sandra Goard, the local election supervisor, refused to accept the applications without the registration number. But Ms. Goard allowed Republican workers to camp out in her offices for as long as 10 days to make handwritten corrections on the pre-printed applications sent out by the Republican Party.

So far, the handling of absentee ballot applications has not been part of the political and legal battle over Florida's presidential vote. In three other counties, events moved slowly toward an uncertain conclusion. In Broward County, officials declined to order a broader recount of all the county's ballots. In Palm Beach County, officials prepared to begin a manual recount on Tuesday. And in Volusia County, a hand count neared completion tonight.

The state enacted laws that were especially stringent on the issuing of absentee ballots after widespread fraud in the 1997 mayoral election in Miami led to the removal of Mayor Xavier Suarez. The laws say ballots may not be issued unless prospective voters provide identifying information, including their voter identification numbers.

But these requirements were disregarded this year in thousands of cases around the state of Florida.

"The Legislature puts in things that sound good, but in practice, they don't mean anything," said Pam Iorio, supervisor of elections in Hillsborough County. Ms. Iorio said most of the state's election supervisors "decided we were going to supply the voter ID."

"We're in the business of trying to get the people to vote," she added.

Ms. Goard of Seminole County, a Republican, said at an elections board meeting today that she had rejected incomplete applications from voters because she had had no time to review them or fix the mistakes. "If we would have had 48 hours in a day, we could have," she said.

Ms. Iorio said: "We accept them all, as long as they have the name, address, the last four digits of the Social Security number and the date of birth, and we provide the identification number to voters. If we expect them to supply the voter ID number, we wouldn't have any absentee ballots."

A local lawyer in Seminole County, Harry Jacobs, formally protested Ms. Goard's decision to allow Republican campaign workers to correct the applications. "I felt like it was wrong," Mr. Jacobs said. "I felt it was not legal. I felt it was amoral."

At a two-hour meeting today, the Seminole County election board rejected Mr. Jacob's complaint and certified the results, saying Ms. Goard had followed the election law.

"You're not required to write them a letter and blow their noses and tell them all the things to complete their applications, right?" said Kenneth McIntosh, a member of the local elections board at today's hearing.

"No," Ms. Goard replied.

Mr. Jacobs said he was considering filing a lawsuit over the issue. Florida Democrats assert that Ms. Goard's decision to allow people other than the voters to amend the applications violated election laws. "She let them tamper with her files, and that's a felony," said Bob Poe, the Florida Democratic chairman.

Republicans strongly disputed that contention and said the procedure in no way undermined the validity of the absentee voting process since it involved only applications, not the ballots themselves. "Providing this information was perfectly appropriate," said Mike Meece, a lawyer from Austin, Tex., who is assisting the Bush campaign in Florida.

Ms. Goard's handling of the absentee ballots may well have affected the totals in Seminole County, where Mr. Bush captured 55 percent of the vote. Mr. Bush ran much better among absentee voters, garnering 10,006 votes to Vice President Al Gore's 5,209.

It was not clear how many of Mr. Bush's absentee votes resulted from applications corrected in Ms. Goard's office, but Democrats say that her rulings could well have given Mr. Bush enough votes to account for his lead in Florida. Mr. Bush easily carried Seminole County, receiving 75,677 votes to Mr. Gore's 59,174.

Ms. Goard said today that Republicans learned of the error in the forms in the weeks before the election and asked her permission to correct it. Ms. Goard said neither she nor anyone in her office had tipped off Republicans about the errors.

She did agree to allow two Republican campaign workers with a laptop computer containing voter registration information to pull up a chair in her offices and correct the errors.

Ms. Goard said that in the primaries this year her office had gone out of its way to help voters, contacting those who filed incomplete applications to correct errors. But she said her small operation was swamped by applications for the general election.

The tough elections laws in Florida were enacted in 1998 after a Miami Herald series disclosed widespread fraud in the Miami mayoral election the year before. The articles recounted rampant abuses, including the sale of absentee votes, forged signatures and votes cast by the dead.

The 1998 law says applicants for absentee ballots "must disclose" four pieces of personal information, including their voter registration number.

Election officials in Lake, Hillsborough and Orange Counties said they supplied missing information and mailed voters absentee ballots after verifying the data in county records.

Several took issue with Seminole County's decision to reject incomplete applications from voters.

"I didn't specifically reject them because they didn't have the numbers," said Bill Cowles, the supervisor of elections in Orange County. "I believe the court would probably uphold the idea that you shouldn't disenfranchise a voter. Around the state, there are many supervisors who follow the same procedure."

A Florida Republican official said today that the party had mailed thousands of pre-prepared applications for absentee ballots to Republican voters around the state. He declined to say how many were sent or whether they were all missing the voter registration numbers, saying the information was "proprietary."

Broward County No Broad Recount; Appeal is Planned

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla., Nov. 13 After a full day of partisan bickering and hand counting of 4,000 ballots, Vice President Al Gore today picked up only four votes in the heavily Democratic Broward County, and officials declined to order a broader recount of all the county's ballot.

Democrats had hoped that today's recount would prompt a full examination of all ballots cast in the county last Tuesday, when Mr. Gore received 386,561 votes to 117,323 for Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. But one of the Democrats on the canvassing board, Judge Robert Lee, sided with the lone Republican to vote against the broader count. The Democratic National Committee said tonight that it would go to court Tuesday to seek to overturn the board.

Judge Lee said he voted against a broad recount after reading an opinion by the state's director of elections, L. Clayton Roberts, that said a full-scale manual recount would be warranted only in the event that "the vote tabulation system fails to count properly marked" ballots.

Suzanne Gunzburger, the other Democrat on the three-member canvassing board, voted for a broader recount saying, "I'm saddened that the people who really wanted to vote for president didn't have their votes counted."

The count of 4,000 ballots, about 1 percent of the county's total, began this afternoon after officials spent nearly an hour and a half debating the procedures they would use.

Most of the voter's decisions were clear from the ballots with a clean hole punch for Mr. Gore, Mr. Bush or the other presidential candidates. But many were ambiguous a half punch of a ballot here, a double punch for two presidential candidates there. And about the only thing that was certain was that everyone involved in the recount could expect a great deal of uncertainty.

"Do we turn it around or look at it in one direction?" asked one of the people recounting the ballots. In fact, the members of the canvassing board seemed as confused as the workers doing the counting.

The board debated at length when a partially punched ballot would be counted as an acceptable vote and when a ballot marking would be considered too ambiguous and therefore invalid.

There was even debate over whether the doors to the meeting room had to be open to comply with Florida's Sunshine Law, which mandates public access to official governmental meetings. For about an hour, reporters were barred from the proceedings until several reporters called their lawyers on cellular phones. Soon after, the room where the recount was taking place was opened to the press but not to the public at large.

Broward's recount was ordered after officials in the largely Democratic county realized that more than 6,600 ballots registered no selection in the presidential race because punch holes were not pressed through fully.

Even before a single ballot was counted, Edward Pozzuoli, chairman of the Republican Party of Broward County, requested in writing that the canvassing board reconsider taking the recount.

"Conducting a manual recount now after two machine counts would threaten the ballot's physical integrity and increase greatly the likelihood that they will not be properly counted," Mr. Pozzuoli said in his written request.

The canvassing board consists of Jane Carroll, a Republican, supervisor of elections, Ms. Gunzburger, who is chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, and Judge Lee, who is also chairman of the canvassing board.

When James Carroll, a lawyer for the Republicans, who is not related to Jane Carroll, asked that the canvassing board officially act on the request to reconsider the recount, Judge Lee said, "The request dies from lack of a motion."

At times, the exchange between Mr. Carroll and Judge Lee became testy. After Mr. Carroll repeatedly attempted to speak during the canvassing meeting, Judge Lee said, "If you interrupt again, I'm going to ask the deputy to remove you."

Mr. Lichtman and Democratic party officials vigorously argued that the recount was appropriate under Florida law.

Representative Peter Deutsch, a Democrat from Broward County, said: "A hand count is more accurate. That's why it's being done that way. I think most Americans want to have an accurate count."

But Scott McClellan, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said there were no accurate procedures in place for conducting the recounts in various South Florida counties. "You're talking about different standards in different counties," he said.

Ms. Carroll, supervisor of elections, said that while she was charged with overseeing the recount she too was not in favor of it. "Elections have to come and go and I want to get this one certified and over. I think the more you handle ballots, the worse it is."

DANA CANEDY

-- Old softy (old@softy.com), November 27, 2000.


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