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Wednesday, July 14, 2004

How the Overseas Absentee Vote Took Florida in 2000 

Much handwringing in blogworld over this morning's USA Today story, in which we learn that:
Problems with military absentee ballots that clouded the 2000 election have not been fixed, jeopardizing the ability of more than 160,000 troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to have their votes counted this fall . . . .

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress formerly known as the General Accounting Office, found that the system used to collect and deliver mail in Iraq, including absentee ballots, suffers from long delays and other problems.
Not to be unpatriotic or nuthin', but while we're at it, let's also take some steps to ensure that Our Boys in Uniform don't seize the opportunity to vote after the fucking election is over, as they did in 2000, according to the New York Times:
Around the world, on Navy ships and military bases, in embassies and vacation homes, Florida's overseas voters were transfixed by the unfolding drama. Most could only watch and wait; by Election Day, they had already voted.

But after Nov. 7, some hurriedly mailed their ballots, unaware or unconcerned that late voting is illegal.

Aboard the George Washington, an aircraft carrier then in the Adriatic Sea, Michael J. Kohrt recalled fellow crew members gathering around television sets on the morning of Nov. 8. ''We saw Florida was deadlocked, and everyone on the ship said, 'Whoa, I have got to get my ballot in,' '' he said. ''A lot of guys voted late.''

The Times investigation found a substantial number of people who, like Mr. Kohrt, knowingly cast their ballots after Election Day. Of the 91 voters interviewed whose ballots had either missing or late postmarks, 30 acknowledged marking ballots late. Only four were counted. Mr. Kohrt's vote, which he said was for Mr. Gore, was among those rejected.

In the days after Nov. 7, both the Postal Service and the Pentagon worked hard to ensure the timely delivery of absentee ballots to Florida.

''We need to make sure our Sailors have their vote count,'' said a Nov. 10 Navy e-mail message that urged at least 118 ships to check for any remaining ballots.

The Pentagon soon faced pressure from the Bush campaign. Leading Republicans in Congress wrote letters and made calls. Mr. Ginsberg, the campaign's chief counsel, faxed a letter to Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, the only Republican in the Clinton cabinet, on Nov. 11. ''We fear that, unless those ballots are collected immediately, they will not be delivered on or before November 17,'' Mr. Ginsberg wrote . . . .

In the end, the vast majority of the ballots -- 97 percent -- arrived before the Nov. 17 deadline. In previous elections, according to records and interviews, as many as a third arrived after the 10-day window had closed.

But The Times investigation indicated that the push to get the ballots in quickly only aggravated a problem that had concerned the Bush camp: 17 percent of military ballots arrived without postmarks, despite military regulations that require all mail to be postmarked. There is no evidence that the Pentagon knowingly delivered ballots cast illegally after Election Day.

In interviews, Pentagon officials could not fully explain why so many ballots were arriving without postmarks. They noted that a survey conducted after the election found less than 1 percent of all overseas military mail arrived without a postmark.

But a General Accounting Office study in May found a range of problems with how the military handled the absentee ballot issue, including inadequate training and supervision in its voting program. As a result of that and mail problems, the report said, Florida officials received ballots without postmarks, or witnesses, or even signatures.

The lack of postmarks made it impossible for canvassing boards to answer the threshold questions that determined the validity of an overseas vote: Was the ballot indeed mailed from a foreign country? And was it mailed on or before Election Day?

The lack of postmarks also posed political problems for the Bush strategists. Some Bush advisers, still fearful of votes from Israel, were preparing to seek strict enforcement of the postmark standard, according to documents and interviews. The Bush campaign even dispatched Jim Smith, a former Florida secretary of state, to emphasize the postmarking rule at a news conference on Nov. 12.

''The privilege to vote abroad comes with the corresponding duty to follow practices adopted by the State of Florida to assure timely and fair elections,'' Mr. Smith said at the news conference.

But even as Mr. Smith spoke, Bush strategists were shifting gears. They realized that unless they could persuade some local election officials to set aside the state's rules on postmarking, hundreds of ballots from military personnel, a reliable voting bloc, would not be counted.

In a single phrase of federal law, they found the statutory tool by which the Bush team would seek to undo Florida's postmarking rules. The phrase was contained in the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, a 1986 federal law intended to make overseas voting easier. One part of the law, a directive to postal officials, states that overseas ballots ''shall be carried expeditiously and free of postage.''

Although the law said nothing about postmarks, in the view of Mr. Aufhauser, the Bush lawyer, those eight words demonstrated that Congress never intended to require postmarks on overseas military ballots . . . .

On the day after the election, Division of Elections staff members drafted a press release titled ''Secretary Explains Overseas Ballot Procedures.'' It was meant to be a simple reminder from Ms. Harris, similar to those her predecessors had routinely sent out, that state election rules required overseas ballots to have been ''postmarked or signed and dated'' by Election Day.

By early that evening, the draft statement had been sent to Ms. Harris's e-mail basket for approval. It was never released.

Instead, Ms. Harris said nothing about the absentee ballots until Nov. 13, when she touched on them at the end of a televised statement that focused mainly on trying to bring an end to the South Florida recounts. In her statement, she said that the overseas ballots had to be ''executed'' -- a vague word that could have meant either signed or both signed and dated -- by Election Day and that they had to bear a foreign postmark. Then she added, ''They are not required, however, to be postmarked on or prior to'' Election Day.
From earlier in the same NYT story:
In its investigation, The Times found that these overseas ballots -- the only votes that could legally be received and counted after Election Day -- were judged by markedly different standards, depending on where they were counted.

The unequal treatment of these ballots is at odds with statements by Bush campaign leaders and by the Florida secretary of state, Katherine Harris, that rules should be applied uniformly and certainly not changed in the middle of a contested election. It also conflicts with the equal protection guarantee that the United States Supreme Court invoked in December when it halted a statewide manual recount and effectively handed Florida to Mr. Bush.

After being told of The Times's findings, Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said: ''This election was decided by the voters of Florida a long time ago. And the nation, the president and all but the most partisan Americans have moved on'' . . . .

Many of the 680 flawed ballots in the analysis of the overseas envelopes had multiple defects, so the total number of flaws exceeds the number of defective ballots. The following questionable ballots were found:

*344 ballots with no evidence they were cast on or before Election Day. They had late, illegible or missing postmarks.

*183 ballots with United States postmarks.

*96 ballots lacking the required signature or address of a witness.

*169 ballots from voters who were not registered, who failed to sign the envelope or who had not requested a ballot. A request is required by federal law.

*5 ballots received after the Nov. 17 deadline.

*19 voters cast two ballots, both of which counted.

Canvassing board members struggled to strike a balance between counting as many votes as possible and safeguarding against fraud. Decisions were difficult, particularly with ballots that appeared to be from legitimate voters yet did not comply with the rules. In some cases, board members said they had used common sense and cited a Florida court decision that gave them some ''latitude of judgment.'' For example, the boards accepted 87 overseas ballots that arrived without a postmark a day or two after Election Day, judging that they most likely had been cast before Nov. 7.

Still, this benefit of the doubt was given to such ballots more than three times as often in counties carried by Mr. Bush, according to the Times database.
UPDATE: Phil Carter of Intel Dump reports that the Army is moving with all due haste to see that soldiers have every opportunity to vote in a timely fashion.

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