Published on Monday, November 27, 2000 in the Palm Beach Post
Irregularities in Seminole Could Cost GOP Dearly
by John Pacenti, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
A challenge to throw out all absentee ballots in Seminole County took a back seat for weeks as the forces of Al Gore and George W. Bush fought it out over recounts and revotes in more populous South Florida.
Yet, the lawsuit filed in the Republican suburban enclave north of Orlando ticks like a time bomb in the unprecedented post-election-day scramble for Florida's 25 electoral votes and, ultimately, the presidency.
On Wednesday a circuit judge in Sanford will hear arguments on whether to throw out 17,000 absentee ballots, putting thousands of Bush votes in jeopardy.
"The hand-counting could pale compared to this," said Nat Stern, a professor of law at Florida State University.
Bush gained more than 10,000 absentee ballots in Seminole. Gore got about 5,000. If all the absentee votes are tossed out, Gore could win Florida and the presidency. An illegal favor? Longwood resident Harry Jacobs' suit pivots on a favor that Seminole elections chief Sandra Goard did for the Republicans. Goard allowed two GOP operatives to add voter identification numbers to more than 4,000 flawed absentee ballot applications that had been rejected before the election. The workers were then allowed to resubmit the corrected applications.
Jacobs says that violated a strict 1998 Florida law -- enacted after rampant absentee ballot fraud surfaced in Miami -- that says only the voter, an immediate family member or legal guardian may fill out an application for an absentee ballot.
Two years ago, the state election office ruled that it was OK for political parties to mail and collect the absentee applications, but the voters or their close relatives or guardians must provide clear identifying information, including their voter registration numbers.
But because of what went on in the Seminole elections office, Jacobs argues that the absentee process was so tainted that all of the ballots must be disregarded.
Goard initially described Jacobs' accusations as "absurd," but under questioning last week by his lawyer, she admitted to allowing Republican worker Michael Leach and another GOP activist into her office for about 10 days prior to the election.
For judge, a tricky situation
The Republicans came in after Goard received a call from the GOP in Tallahassee saying a mistake had been made on tens of thousands of pre-printed absentee ballots sent out to party faithful.
Democrats also sent voters pre-printed applications, but the Republican mailings had voters' birth dates on the form instead of the required voter registration numbers.
Circuit Judge Debra Nelson has already rejected Republican efforts to dismiss the suit. But a new wrinkle emerged over the weekend when it was learned the judge had the same absentee ballot problem in her own September primary.
Her campaign manager, Robert Lewis, a Republican and deputy chief clerk for the Seminole County court system, said that Nelson's campaign also forgot to put ID numbers on absentee ballot applications. About 5,000 forms were amended by Nelson's campaign.
Without those ID numbers, the applications were invalid under Florida law. "Only the voter or a member of the immediate family or the legal guardian can request an absentee ballot," the top of the application for Seminole's absentee ballot reads.
If someone other than the voter fills out the absentee form, it's a third-degree felony.
Jacobs hasn't asked Nelson to recuse herself, although the judge could step down on her own.
Created from Miami problems
Jacobs' attorney, Gerald Richman of West Palm Beach, says he is anxious to get the case heard and feels Nelson is a good judge.
"I think our case may be the strongest case pending and have the strongest chance of success," Richman said.
He plans to use the Republicans' own standard against them.
The strict requirement for absentee ballots was passed by the state's Republican-controlled legislature in the wake of Miami's absentee scandal in the 1998 mayoral race. Xavier Suarez had been elected, but a judge threw out the absentee ballots -- hundreds of which had signatures that didn't match the alleged voter's handwriting and at least one that was signed by a dead man. The judge handed the office to Joe Carollo, the incumbent who had lost to Suarez.
Richman contends what happened in Seminole is essentially the same. "It's analogous with what happened in Miami," he said. "It's basically fraud."
The lawyers for Goard and the GOP have said they did nothing wrong, and point out that the ballots themselves are not at issue -- only the applications.
Jim Hattaway, who had been representing Goard and the Seminole County canvassing board, did not return phone calls. Richman says Hattaway has given notice that he must leave the case because of a conflict of interest.
Richman also has raised the specter of Republican shenanigans. He said Goard, a Republican, has admitted the two GOP operatives were left alone in a room full of computers. They had their own laptop, he said.
"They had no supervision and nobody checked them in or out," said Richman, who contends that as many as 4,700 applications may have been improperly amended.
The Bush and Gore campaigns are already battling on several fronts in state and federal court. But Stern, the FSU professor, says the Seminole County suit just may have the stamina to succeed.
"Both Bush and Gore have raised rather tenuous federal claims," said Stern. "But this is a substantial constitutional claim. If proven correct, it would have significant chance of succeeding."
So far the Democrats haven't paid much attention to Seminole County, leaving Jacobs and Richman to fight it themselves.
Bush, the Republicans and the elections chief all have attorneys.
"Basically, we have three large law firms against us," Richman said. "I hope Democrats' sympathies are strongly with us, but we could use more help."
Meanwhile, Goard's lawyers are seeking to have the case dismissed or transferred to Tallahassee. A hearing is set for 8 a.m. today in Sanford before Judge Nelson.
Staff writers Stephen Kiehl and Kathryn Quigley and Post wire services contributed to this story.
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