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Election officials stand by decisions

November 17 was a tense, somewhat awkward Friday at the Supervisor of Elections Office.

Huddled in the back were lawyers who represented the Republican and Democratic parties. They came to watch the Canvassing Board complete an unexpectedly important task: counting absentee ballots.

But these weren't just any absentee ballots. These ballots came from Citrus County residents who lived overseas. Most of the ballots arrived too late for counting on Election Day, but just in time to meet the Nov. 17 deadline set out in state code.

What happened on Nov. 17 in Citrus _ and in Florida's 66 other counties _ is at the heart of another major media report about the historic 2000 presidential election and the way the Sunshine State handled it.

The New York Times on Sunday published a special report arguing that, of the 2,490 absentee ballots from overseas voters counted in the election, 680 were "flawed."

The story, which the St. Petersburg Times also published, said a questionable or "flawed" ballot included ballots that had no postmark, were postmarked after Election Day, contained no witness signature or were mailed from within the United States.

Eighty percent of the flawed ballots were accepted in counties that President George W. Bush carried, the story said. Bush was the prevailing candidate in Citrus.

There is no way of knowing which candidate the voters selected, since the ballots were separated from the envelopes in which they arrived. But an elections expert retained by the New York Times calculated that, even with all the flawed ballots tossed, Bush probably would have defeated then-Vice President Al Gore anyway, although perhaps by fewer votes.

Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill and County Judge Mark Yerman, two members of the Canvassing Board, said Monday they remained comfortable with the decisions they made Nov. 17. The board's third member, County Commissioner Jim Fowler, will be out of touch all week, according to county staff.

The Citrus board considered 53 ballots on Nov. 17. Of those, the board rejected nine because they lacked a witness or some other necessary feature.

The version of the special report that the New York Times posted on its Web page showed one such Citrus ballot. Republican lawyers did not try to persuade the board to accept non-witnessed ballots, according to a transcript of the Nov. 17 meeting; GOP lawyers in other counties did try to persuade canvassing boards to accept such ballots, the story said.

After tossing out the nine ballots, the Citrus County Canvassing Board had 44 ballots to consider. It was unclear Monday which, if any, of the 44 ballots the New York Times considered questionable.

However, Democratic lawyer John Piccin objected to 14 of the 44 ballots during the Nov. 17 meeting. His primary objection _ the ballots didn't contain postmarks _ seems to fit the newspaper's criteria.

Piccin objected to each ballot that didn't contain a valid postmark. The board accepted most of those ballots, however, unanimously agreeing that properly executed, signed, dated and witnessed ballots shouldn't be disqualified simply because the postal service, for whatever reason, didn'tmark the envelope in a proper or timely manner.

Most of the ballots fitting this description came from military personnel, whose mail sometimes was routed in odd ways or not postmarked at all, the board found. Two of the ballots Piccin would have rejected came in a courier envelope that was dated Nov. 6; still, the Democratic lawyer wanted them tossed for lack of postmark on the actual ballots.

Republican lawyers argued to include such ballots. Fowler and Gill, both Republicans, joined Yerman, a Democrat, in agreeing.

"I look at the statutes as being limiting factors to try to make sure that the election is done properly and correctly, and that they (voters) don't get to vote more than once, that kind of thing, and there is no fraud," Yerman said, according to the transcript.

But voters who have "done everything that they can do" should not lose out because they had to depend upon "a third party to do something they (the voters) have no control over."

Gill said New York Times staffers called her to ask about just one ballot. That ballot had an illegible postmark.

The original, which was more clear than the copy, showed the postmark was Nov. 6, Gill said. She relayed that information to the news gatherers.

Gill and Yerman also questioned the notion, put forth by an election official in another county, that all canvassing board members were subject to "pressure" from outside sources.

"That had to be one of the most stressful days I had," Gill said. But not because of the lawyers who were arguing their parties' respective arguments.

"It was coming from both sides," Yerman said, "and I think it was our job to be as fair and impartial with the ballots as possible, and I think we were. I don't think either side unduly influenced us."

Piccin agreed that neither party exerted undue pressure that day. But, "I think the deck was stacked against us because (Secretary of State) Katherine Harris was Bush's co-chair for Florida, and everything she said was given to her by" Republican lawyers advising her in Tallahassee.

Richard Corcoran, a Crystal River lawyer who helped represent the Republicans that day, said his party simply wanted the board to include all the properly cast votes.