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Scrutiny of Harris' role is revived

Katherine Harris cannot escape the shadow of the 2000 presidential election.

More than seven months after the U.S. Supreme Court handed George W. Bush the presidency, the role of Florida's secretary of state in the historic election recount continues to come under scrutiny.

Now new questions have been raised about the role Harris played in influencing how overseas absentee ballots were counted. A six-month New York Times investigation published Sunday also offered more details about the operation of her office during those hectic days following the November election.

For Harris, the exhaustive account is certain to revive debate about her impartiality and her political future. She was a co-chair of the George W. Bush for president campaign in Florida and also is the state's top elections official.

Once hoping to run for another statewide office, Harris is expected to run for Congress next year in a heavily Republican district in the Sarasota area.

"I'm sure when all of this is said and done the 40 percent of voters who are Republicans and think she is the keeper of goodness will continue to think so," J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a Harris adviser, said in an interview Sunday. "The 25 percent who think she is evil personified will continue to think so. And the 35 percent I didn't mention won't care."

She declined to be interviewed by the New York Times and could not be reached for comment Sunday.

The New York Times highlighted Harris' role and her interpretation of a state law that required overseas ballots to be postmarked by Election Day if they were to be counted. But while the ballots had to be post marked by Election Day, the overseas ballots would be counted if they arrived within 10 days after the election.

In the days following the Nov. 7 election, it appears Harris adjusted her opinion.

The day after the election, her staff prepared a news release that noted overseas ballots had to be "postmarked or signed and dated" by Election Day. That news release was never sent out, the New York Times reported.

Instead, Harris said in a televised statement on Nov. 13 that overseas ballots had to be "executed" by Election Day but added, "They are not required, however to be postmarked on or prior to" Election Day, the newspaper reported.

Stipanovich was one of the key figures who helped guide Harris during the post-election chaos. Between Nov. 9 and Nov. 26, he said, he acted as Harris' personal, unpaid attorney and spent hours inside her Capitol office.

Mark Herron, a Democratic Party lawyer during the recount who was vilified by Republicans for writing a memo outlining how to challenge overseas ballots, found Stipanovich's job description curious.

Stipanovich previously helped manage campaigns for Gov. Jeb Bush and for Harris.

"He's there basically to ensure a Republican victory," Herron said Sunday.

For the New York Times, Stipanovich described how he and Tampa media consultant Adam Goodman would help craft Harris' public statements.

Stipanovich said in an interview Sunday that he had no recollection of Harris' Nov. 13 statement that muddled the question about postmarks on overseas ballots. He said he recalled informally asking Clay Roberts, the director of the elections division, about postmarks and overseas ballots. But he said he did not participate in any formal discussions about those ballots.

"I knew very little about, and still know very little about, absentee ballot counting," Stipanovich said.

Absentee ballots from overseas were one of the keys to Bush's victory, and the Republican's campaign pushed hard for counties that he won to count those without postmarks. The New York Times' analysis found 680 flawed ballots that would have been disqualified if Florida's election laws had been strictly enforced. Of those 680 ballots, 344 ballots had late, illegible or missing postmarks.

Bush won Florida by 537 votes when the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the recounts. A Harvard expert on voting patterns and statistical models estimated for the New York Times that Bush's winning margin would have been reduced to 245 votes if the flawed ballots had been discarded.

Many of the records from computers used by Stipanovich and Goodman in Harris' Capitol office have been erased, the New York Times reported. Stipanovich said Sunday the computers were used to draft her public statements.

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Bob Poe said Sunday the erased computer records were public records that should not have been destroyed. He plans to talk with his lawyers today to see what recourse the Democrats may have in seeking either the records or charging Harris with a public records violation.

"I think we want to find out what was destroyed," Poe said.

This spring, Gov. Bush signed an election law that is intended to prevent a repeat of the chaos from last year. For example, the runoff election has been eliminated for 2002. A state election expert says that will avoid any need to give overseas voters 10 extra days to get their absentee ballots counted in Florida.

Florida signed a consent decree with the federal government in 1982 agreeing to the 10 additional days to ensure that overseas voters received ballots reflecting results of the second primary.

"There's a lot of problems caused by this 10-day ballot," Clay Roberts, director of the state Division of Elections, said in a June interview. "I think it is imperative for us to have a system by which we have enough time between our elections to mail the ballot to these overseas voters so the deadline for them is the deadline for every other citizen."

Roberts said lawyers in his office are preparing a legal petition to be filed in the U.S. District Court, asking that the 10-day provision be lifted.

The new law also eliminates the requirement for postmarks on overseas ballots.

Some Democrats, eager to exploit lingering bitterness over the election to rally the rank-and-file in 2002, were not surprised by the New York Times' investigation.

"So, what's new?" said Rep. Lois Frankel, D-West Palm Beach, a Democratic candidate for governor. "We have to look forward, not backward. We knew all the votes weren't counted."

Gov. Bush also is looking forward.

Before he left Sunday evening for a weeklong trade mission to Chile and Argentina, he responded to an e-mail from a St. Petersburg Times' reporter seeking reaction the New York Times' investigation.

The governor said he hadn't read it and was looking forward to his trip.