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Overseas voter debacle

Published Sep. 10, 2005

Florida has come up short again in a study of the 2000 presidential election, this time in how it handled absentee ballots from overseas. In an analysis of 2,490 ballots from Florida residents living abroad or in the military, the New York Times found 680 questionable votes that could have been disqualified under the state's election laws.

While George W. Bush's margin of victory in Florida was 537 votes, the study could not determine which candidate the flawed ballots favored, so they may or may not have changed the outcome. This much is clear, however. The latest revelations should embarrass Florida officials, renewing the urgency for absentee ballot reform.

In the past, there was limited time to distribute absentee ballots between the second primary and general election, so Florida allowed overseas votes to be counted if they arrived within 10 days following the election. Because the 2000 contest was still in doubt days after polls closed, Republicans looked to overseas votes for an advantage. The Bush campaign focused on counties dominated by Republicans and where military votes were cast.

The Bush campaign mounted a major legal and public relations assault to protect its advantage in overseas ballots, and some elections supervisors ignored or stretched the rules to count those votes, the Times reported. Florida law calls for overseas ballots to be signed, witnessed and dated on or before Election Day and to bear a foreign postmark. But among the votes that were counted, 344 ballots had no legible date, 96 lacked the required witness and 183 had U.S. postmarks, according to the Times. There were other problems _ 19 absentee voters cast two ballots, 5 ballots were received after the Nov. 17 deadline and 169 had other flaws that could have invalided them. (Since some ballots had more than one error, the mistakes total more than the number of ballots.)

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris _ under the influence of Republican political strategists _ added confusion rather than clarity to the situation. On Nov. 13, she contradicted her office's own rules by announcing that overseas ballots should not have to be postmarked on or before Election Day. That may have given canvassing boards the cover to accept otherwise invalid ballots.

Democrats are using the findings to once again question the legitimacy of the Bush presidency, but that is not a helpful response. The Times could not determine that defective overseas ballots changed the outcome, and most Americans have accepted the election result and moved on.

A constructive response, especially from state lawmakers, would be a vow to fix the law. Yes, the Legislature should get credit for addressing the biggest elections problem by requiring counties to replace faulty punch-card voting systems with optical scanners or touch-screen technology. But the job of election reform is not finished.

The state needs to clearly establish the rules for absentee ballots and to apply them uniformly in each county. Overseas voters, especially those in the military, may need some accommodation for getting ballots in on time. But they should be expected to provide a witness, sign and date their ballots and return them. Men and women in uniform should be encouraged to vote, of course, but it is the military command's responsibility to make the marking and timely mailing of absentee ballots a priority.

Absentee voting by local residents creates problems as well, especially when political operatives solicit such ballots by the dozens. The Times study didn't address that issue, but legislators should include the topic in their deliberations.

Once again, Florida is being challenged to clean up the mess it made of the 2000 election.