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How Republicans got into absentee mess

Published Sep. 28, 2005

Just days before the Nov. 7 election, with polls showing Al Gore and George W. Bush statistically tied in Florida, a troubling wind blew into the Republican camp.

Forget Bush's admission that he had been arrested for DUI in his 20s. That went away in 48 hours.

A more serious and lasting problem had developed in the party's months-long, $500,000 program to register Republican absentee voters in Florida.

A laser printing error left thousands of absentee ballot requests without the required voter identification numbers. Some local elections officials had simply set them aside as invalid, rendering them useless.

"We goofed, yes," conceded Todd Schnick, political director of the Florida Republican Party, whose testimony in a lawsuit that concluded Thursday provided a first glimpse of the party's angst as it scrambled to fix the problem.

According to testimony this week, local GOP officials in Seminole and Martin counties were able to undo much of the damage, working feverishly to write in the missing numbers. They had the help of local elections supervisors, fellow Republicans who granted them access.

In Martin County, for example, two party officials armed with a computer database of voter identification numbers were able to fix 766 request forms. More than 670 of those resulted in Republican votes. Assuming most of them voted for the party's candidate, the feat could well have helped deliver Bush his current 537-vote lead in Florida.

But the locals also added to the party's already-whopping legal defense over the last four weeks as Bush fights in the courts to retain his slender advantage. The lawsuits filed in Martin and Seminole are attempting to have thousands of absentee votes thrown out, a result that suddenly would give Gore a resounding lead.

The problem, it became clear in testimony this week, was that the local officials failed to notify voters before adding their identification numbers to the ballot requests, which is required under state law.

Even Martin County Supervisor of Elections Peggy Robbins testified she would never unilaterally alter a ballot request without contacting a voter. Why, then, would she allow someone else to do it, opposing lawyers asked.

Robbins explained: "We did not want to disenfranchise the voters. They thought when they mailed that in that it was correct."

Opposing lawyers pressed Schnick to admit that he knew better, and they fished for admissions that he improperly orchestrated the effort. But all he offered during a tense turn on the stand Wednesday night was one-word answers and the party line.

He told Edward Stafman, an attorney for voters who brought the Martin County lawsuit, that he thought correcting the requests was the right thing to do.

When Stafman suggested that it was more an effort to "save your hide," Schnick repeated: "We were trying to correct our mistake."