President Bush's top campaign lawyer said yesterday that the winner of next month's presidential vote may not be known for "days or weeks" after Election Day if the contest is close.
Experts predict that a large number of absentee ballots will be cast, which could take time to count. For the first time nationwide, voters whose names do not appear on the rolls will be allowed to cast "provisional ballots," which will be counted only after a post-Election Day review determines their eligibility.
In addition, some battleground states will count overseas military ballots received after Election Day as long as they are postmarked before Nov. 3. In Florida, for instance, military ballots received through Nov. 12 will be counted.
Tom Josefiak, the Bush-Cheney campaign's general counsel, said he worries that the uncertainty caused by potential delays could undermine confidence in the outcome. "If it's a close election in any one state, it may be days or weeks before we know who actually is the winner," he said. "I hope that doesn't happen.
Josefiak's comments came as most national polls show Bush and Democrat John F. Kerry in a dead heat. Four years ago, a similarly close race between Bush and Vice President Al Gore deadlocked in Florida and produced a 36-day whirlwind of lawsuits as Democrats sought to recount votes and Republicans pushed to stop while Bush was ahead.
Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Jenny Backus denounced Josefiak's comment. "It seems like the Republicans want people to somehow think that the results they see on election night aren't accurate, which is a far cry from where they were in 2000," she said. "Maybe they think they're going to be behind."
During a conference call with reporters, Josefiak and Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman said that the Democratic legal strategy to keep third-party presidential candidate Ralph Nader off the ballot is aimed at disenfranchising overseas military voters, who may be more inclined to vote for Bush.
Mehlman charged that "in target states . . . Democrats, led by the Kerry campaign, have waited until the last minute" to file lawsuits to keep Nader off the ballot. "The effect of this litigation has been to prevent state and local elections officials from printing and mailing ballots overseas," he said. Mehlman noted that in 2000 Democrats fought to disqualify overseas military ballots in Florida.
Bob Bauer, the DNC's national counsel for voter protection, called Mehlman's charge against the Kerry campaign a "shameful accusation that is utterly without merit."
Mehlman pointed to Pennsylvania as a case study, but Bauer said the court there threw Nader off the ballot for good reason, citing thousands of fraudulent signatures including those of cartoon characters Mickey Mouse and Fred Flintstone.
"Nobody is conspiring against any class of voters by seeking to have the law upheld," Bauer said. "And to the extent there are issues around this Nader effort, the Republicans and their henchmen who funded the effort to get him on the ballot bear the responsibility."