Florida High Court Rejects Absentee Ballot Cases
The Florida Supreme Court on Tuesday refused a request by Democrats to toss out up to 25,000 absentee presidential ballots from two conservative counties.
The judges voted, 6 to 0, not to accept a case in which Democrats claimed Republican officials in Seminole and Martin counties improperly doctored absentee ballot applications from George W. Bush supporters.
The court disagreed.
“The sanctity of the ballot was not impaired,” the court wrote.
Despite irregularities with the ballots, the evidence “does not support a finding of fraud, gross negligence or intentional wrongdoing,” the opinion said.
Vice President Al Gore did not join the lawsuits, and his aides have said that they never had counted on winning Florida--and the presidency--based on these suits, which sought to invalidate votes from Seminole, north of Orlando, and Martin, north of Palm Beach County.
‘The Law Was Crystal Clear’
Lawyers who brought the cases on behalf of Democratic activists said they were considering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“Are we going to follow the rules or are we going to have this loosy-goosy standard?” asked Ed Stafman, lead attorney in the Martin County case.
Barry Richard, a Bush campaign lawyer, said in a statement issued in Austin, Texas, that he was “gratified” by the ruling.
“We have believed all along that the law was crystal clear: These legitimately cast votes should be counted,” Richard said.
Local Republicans insisted they always were confident that the state high court would uphold their lower court victory. But they expressed overwhelming relief when the justices refused even to hear oral arguments in the case.
“I’ll give you an analogy,” said Ken Wright, an attorney for the Florida Republican Party.
“You can take a 2-by-4, put it on the ground and walk back and forth on it all day long. If you take it up 10 stories and put it [between] two buildings, it will scare you to death. When the stakes are this high, it creates a lot of tension,” he said.
Echoing Friday’s lower court rulings, the Supreme Court said it could not condone “irregularities” in the two counties, but it said the problems were not so egregious that thousands of absentee ballots should be thrown out, a remedy that seemed severe even to many Democrats.
Justice Leander J. Shaw Jr., a 17-year court veteran, recused himself from the decision without explanation.
The case focused on a $500,000 state Republican effort to boost absentee votes. The party mailed thousands of preprinted absentee ballot application forms to likely Republican voters. A contractor hired by the GOP mistakenly scrambled or omitted voter identification numbers on most of the forms, making them invalid under state law.
In Seminole County, Election Supervisor Sandra Goard allowed GOP officials to use her office for more than two weeks to correct the documents.
In Martin County, Election Supervisor Peggy S. Robbins allowed the party to remove the flawed forms from her office, take them home and correct them.
Both election supervisors are elected Republicans. Democrats did not receive the same opportunity in either county, and they believe the arrangements between Republicans gave Texas Gov. Bush more than 2,000 votes--and amounted to fraud.
No ‘Evil Intentions,’ GOP Official Says
Martin County Republican Party Chairman Bob Belanger said Tuesday that the arrangement in his county was a mistake that will not be repeated.
“I don’t think anyone had any evil intentions in mind,” he said. “But there was an appearance of impropriety and partisanship.”
Jonathan E. Sjostrom, an attorney who represents Florida election officials, including Secretary of State Katherine Harris, said it is unlikely the U.S. Supreme Court would hear the case.
To bring a case before the federal high court, there must be a question of federal law. He said there is not such a question in this case.
“I would call that a far longer shot than even this long shot,” he said. “There is certainly no basis to appeal. But nothing would surprise me.”
Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this story.
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