The Bush campaign, thwarted for now in its effort to block a recount of Florida votes, filed suit in state court today seeking to force 13 Florida counties to count a larger percentage of votes from overseas military personnel.
The filing in Leon County Court by the Bush campaign and the Florida Republican Party, coming on the same day Bush appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to overrule Florida's high court, has a strong legal basis, many legal experts believe. Federal law governing such ballots trumps more restrictive state laws.
But at the same time, the lawsuit puts the Republicans in an awkward spot in the court of public opinion. While decrying the use of Democratic lawsuits to get more votes counted in South Florida, they are using the same means to get more military votes counted. Military voters tend to be Republican, while the undercounted minority and elderly voters of South Florida tend to be Democratic.
In a news conference on the capitol grounds, Bush lawyer Fred Bartlitt and Rep. Joe Scarborough (R-Fla.) toted a sign stating that 1,527 of the 3,733 overseas military ballots had been rejected, a 41 percent rejection rate. As the men accused the Democrats of trying to disenfranchise American soldiers, spectators broke into cheers.
"I'm calling on the 67 counties of this great state . . . to count the ballots of the servicemen and women," Scarborough said.
Democrats have been on the defensive over the military absentee ballots since it was disclosed that Democratic lawyer Mark Herron wrote a Nov. 15 memo coaching Democrats on how to disqualify votes from overseas military personnel. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) has sought to distance the Gore campaign from such efforts. The Democratic vice presidential nominee and Florida Attorney General Robert A. Butterworth have suggested that more of the military ballots without postmarks should be counted. But Bartlitt said today that "nothing is happening," leaving the Bush side no choice but to take legal action.
In today's filing, the Bush campaign argued that "members of the U.S. armed forces who deposited their ballots in the military mail system for delivery are not responsible if their ballots were not postmarked, if the postmark is illegible or smudged, or if military mail delivery procedures resulted in the application of a late postmark or a U.S. postmark when the ballots arrived in the United States."
Bush asked for the overseas military ballots to be ruled valid even if they have illegible, late or domestic postmarks, lack a handwritten date, have "minor differences" in signatures compared with the ballot requests, and whether or not the counties concerned know whether the voters requested absentee ballots in time.
Of the overseas votes that have been rejected, a large number would be rejected even under the guidelines the Republicans seek. In Escambia County, for example, 112 overseas ballots were rejected, but even the Republican lawyers there agreed that 22 should be rejected and another 35 most likely should be rejected.
The 13 counties named in the lawsuits are those with high concentrations of military personnel. They include Escambia County, around Pensacola, even though that county had already included the overseas ballots without postmarks.
On Sunday, Lieberman said neither he nor Gore sanctioned the efforts of Tallahassee lawyer Herron, who wrote a five-page memo on how to strike off military ballots. Scarborough and Bartlitt scolded the Democrats today for doing nothing to counter the voiding of legal military ballots.
Republicans have also used questionable tactics in the military ballot dispute. In a letter to the county attorney's office in Santa Rosa, Republican lawyer Edward P. Fleming, who has represented the Bush side in at least two counties, suggested that county officials could face prison time for excluding military ballots that don't have postmarks.