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Military vote rejection draws broad criticism

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - The rejection of more than 1,500 overseas ballots by county elections officials in Florida - hundreds of them from military personnel who were expected to side mostly with George W. Bush - was sharply criticized yesterday by veterans organizations, retired officers and even Democratic lawmakers who said the ballots should be recounted.

Meanwhile, Florida's Democratic attorney general, Robert A. Butterworth, urged all of the state's counties to reconsider their rejection of the military ballots. His move reflected a retreat by Democrats after their aggressive effort late last week to discard late-arriving overseas ballots. That effort was widely assailed as an attempt to suppress votes by Bush supporters.

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Of the estimated 3,733 overseas absentee ballots received in Florida, elections boards in the state's 67 counties tossed out 1,527, officials said. Of those that remained, 1,380 went for Bush, and 750 were for Vice President Al Gore. The overseas tally raised Bush's lead to 930 votes.

There was no exact figure on how many of the rejected ballots were from military personnel. But Rep. Tillie Fowler, a Republican who represents Jacksonville and the sprawling Mayport Naval Station, said a survey in her district found that 44 of 106 ballots thrown out in Duval County were from service members.

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No postage on military mail

The most common reason why a ballot was thrown out was that it lacked a postmark. Florida law requires either a postmark or a signature and date, said legal experts. But federal law allows military mail to be sent "expeditiously and free of postage."

The ballots rejected in Duval County included some from sailors serving in the Persian Gulf and soldiers serving in Bosnia, according to a list provided by Fowler's office.

"Why hold them liable when they didn't even make a mistake?" Fowler asked. Lawyers for the Bush campaign were considering their legal options, she said, but "it shouldn't have to go to court."

Butterworth said, "No man or woman in military service to this nation should have his or her vote rejected solely due to the absence of a postmark, particularly when military officials have publicly stated that the postmarking of military mail is not always possible under sea or field conditions."

It would be up to the local election officials to determine whether to recount those votes. The attorney general said in a statement that state election officials should seek a clarifying opinion from Florida's Republican secretary of state, Katherine Harris.

Butterworth's statement came after Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Gore's running mate, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that Florida election officials should "take another look" at the discarded military ballots.

Sen. Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, echoed those views yesterday in a round of television interviews. Election officials should "bend over backward" to count the military votes, Graham said on NBC's "Today" show.

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'Count it and salute them'

Sen. Zell Miller, a Georgia Democrat and a Gore supporter, also called for counting the military ballots.

"Any ballot from a man or woman in the military who is serving this country should be counted - period," said Miller, a former Marine. "I don't care when it's dated, whether it's witnessed or anything else. If it is from someone serving this country and they made the effort to vote, count it and salute them when you do it."

Asked whether the vice president would support reconsidering the rejected military votes, Chris Lehane, Gore's press secretary, brushed aside the question. "People should apply the law. The local election officials should interpret it," he said.

Meanwhile, the commander of the 1.9 million-member Veterans of Foreign Wars, John F. Gwizdak, charged that the rejection of military ballots was a "slap in the face" to anyone who has worn a uniform.

"These overseas military absentee ballots deserve to be counted unless they are so damaged as to be unreadable," Gwizdak said.

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In each of the three most recent presidential elections, overseas ballots have favored the Republican candidate. Florida is second only to Texas in the number of active-duty military personnel who call the state home.

Before the overseas counting began, Mark Herron, a Democratic lawyer working for the Gore campaign, distributed a letter to Florida Democrats showing them how to reject overseas ballots, with a section on military ballots.

"The Democrats were protesting almost every one," Fowler contended.

Lehane, the Gore spokesman, dismissed those who said Democrats were targeting overseas ballots and noted that many of those rejected came from Democratic strongholds, such as Broward County. "That's our base," he said.

In Broward County, 396 were opened; 304 were rejected. In Miami-Dade, 312 were opened, and 209 were rejected. By contrast, in Seminole County, which favored Bush, 60 of 229 overseas ballots were rejected.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.


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