Rulings near on ballots

Absentee votes are at issue

By Vickie Chachere, Associated Press, 12/8/2000

ALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Two legal threats to the validity of 25,000 absentee ballots and George W. Bush's paper-thin lead over Al Gore neared rulings yesterday as one judge expressed her reluctance to toss out any votes.

''Why should I not find there was substantial compliance by the voters and accept their vote?'' Leon County Circuit Judge Nikki Clark asked Democratic lawyer Gerald Richman during closing arguments in the case from Seminole County.

At another moment, Clark read part of the election law aloud and said it seemed to say that the failure of election workers to comply with portions of the law did not necessarily nullify the votes.

''If the canvassers can tell the intent of the voter, why should the vote not count?'' she asked.

Clark wanted to know why voters who did nothing wrong should be penalized because election officials allowed Republican operatives to correct some absentee ballot applications by inserting voter ID numbers that were missing due to a computer error.

As the trial ended, she promised a written ruling, strictly according to the edict of the law, noting, ''My job is not to send a message.''

Democrats are seeking to invalidate 15,000 votes in Seminole County. A similar lawsuit alleged 10,000 absentee votes in Martin County were spoiled, too.

Voter ID numbers were left off many applications through computer errors in Seminole County and incorrect numbers were put on forms in Martin County. Florida law says ballot applications may not be mailed out without the correct identification numbers.

Bush won the absentee balloting by 4,797 votes in Seminole and by 2,815 votes in Martin.

Both lawsuits have taken on added significance because they can change the election result and because they represent one last hope for Gore if the Florida Supreme Court rules against him on the issue of manual recounts. Gore is not a party in either lawsuit.

Richman said the legal history of similar court cases required the judge to nullify the votes.

''They took a public office and turned it into an agent or an arm of one political party,'' he said.

Terry Young, attorney for the Seminole County election supervisor, disagreed, saying it would be wrong to ''statistically silence'' 15,000 voters.

''Whether it's 15,000 or one, those people have a right to be heard,'' he said.

Young said it was no coincidence that Democrats were creating a way to come up with just the right number of votes to overcome Bush's certified 537-vote lead statewide.

''There is no doubt that what is at the heart of this case is politics,'' he said.

Just prior to the closings in the Seminole case, Judge Terry P. Lewis heard closing arguments in the Martin County case in the same courthouse. He predicted he would rule by noon today.

Edward Stafman, attorney for the Martin County challengers, also said case law in similar cases commands ''throwing out all of the absentee ballots.''

As an alternative, he suggested Lewis order that 673 of the 10,000 votes be tossed out, representing the number of ballot applications corrected by the Republicans.

Bush lawyer Daryl Bristow said throwing out any votes would be wrong because each voter supplied correct registration information.

''There were six ways until Sunday for the supervisor to find out this was the right person,'' he said. Bristow said no vote should be tossed out for a ''hypertechnical computer glitch fix.''