Florida Supreme Court sides with Bush on absentees


Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In twin victories for George W. Bush, the Florida Supreme Court ruled today that 25,000 absentee ballots challenged in two Florida counties should count in the state’s contested presidential election.

On a pair of 6-0 opinions, the justices upheld the rulings of two state judges, both of whom had said the ballots should count even though local election officials permitted Republican activitists to add information to the ballot applications.

The effect of the rulings was to validate votes which – if discarded – could have let Al Gore overtake Bush in the state that stands to pick the next president. The court’s ruling also cleared away the last significant challenges the Democrats have short of the case before the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the justices toiled to fashion a ruling on Gore’s bid to gain a resumption of manual recounts of thousands of questionable ballots.

Florida Supreme Court spokesman Craig Waters said that in the Seminole County case, where more than 15,000 absentee ballots were challenged, the high court affirmed a ruling from the judge who “found that the evidence does not support a finding of fraud, gross negligence or intentional wrongdoing.”

“The court does not in any sense condone the irregularities found by the trial court,” he added, reading from a statement.

Standing on the steps of the high court, Waters added that in the Martin County case, in which 10,000 absentee ballots were challenged, “the trial court … concluded there were irregularities, but that they did not reach the level of fraud or intentional misconduct. Accordingly, the trial court found that the ballot was not impaired,” he said, adding that the Florida Supreme Court upheld that verdict, as well.

Justice Leander J. Shaw Jr. recused himself from both rulings for reasons which Waters did not specify.

Bush’s lawyer, Barry Richard, welcomed the opinions. “I’ve said from the beginning there was no substance in either case,” he said. “It clearly ends it – no place to go from here.”

Democrats had sought to throw out 25,000 votes in the two counties, alleging that Republicans were unfairly permitted to correct ballot applications while Democrats were not given the same opportunity.

But two Leon County Circuit Court judges refused the demand, finding that election officials did not intentionally seek to help one political party rather than another and that the voters should not be punished.

Gore was not a party to either lawsuit. He has insisted since the Nov. 7 election that every vote must count as he sought to jumpstart hand recounts that could propel him past Bush and on to the White House.

The Supreme Court ruling came after both sides submitted written arguments Monday.

In the arguments, Democratic lawyers pared back demands, seeking to disqualify only 673 Bush votes in Martin County, still enough to overturn Bush’s lead of less than 200 votes. In Seminole County, they still wanted to eliminate 15,000 votes.

“It was our position that this conduct did affect the integrity of the process because these alterations were done only for Republicans, not Democrats,” said Edward Stafman, lawyer for Martin County voters, said after the ruling.

“You’re always disappointed when you lose a case but there’s some solace in the fact that they did find serious irregularities,” he said.

Lawyers in yet a third absentee ballot case were hoping the U.S. Supreme Court would hear their appeal in the case of 2,400 votes that arrived in election offices after Election Day.

“This case has unprecedented importance to the nation because its outcome may determine the next president of the United States,” lawyers for two groups of voters argued in papers filed with the high court.

The absentee ballot suit seeks to throw out 2,400 ballots mailed from overseas, mostly by military personnel. Bush received 1,575 votes among the contested ballots, compared with 836 for Gore.

The voters claim federal laws as well as the U.S. Constitution require all ballots to be received by the close of the polls on Election Day.

Florida’s administrative code, however, requires election officials to count ballots mailed on or before Election Day as long as they are received within 10 days after the election.

A federal judge ruled against the voters last week, and a three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta upheld that ruling.

Copyright ©2000 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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