WASHINGTON -- It was 4:30 a.m. in Jacksonville, Fla., Saturday when two Democratic lawyers pumped their fists in the air and congratulated each other. The local canvassing board had just thrown out overseas absentee ballots of 44 U.S. service personnel. Their defect: no postmarks.
The board disenfranchising the service personnel was controlled by Republicans, an irony reflective of the fight for Florida. Befuddled Republicans were acting like good bureaucrats, following the letter of the law. Delighted Democrats were part of a coolly crafted scheme to win Florida -- and the presidency. While granting maximum latitude in divining intentions of Democratic senior citizens on the south Florida Gold Coast, the predominantly Republican votes of young men and women serving their country abroad would be scrutinized with no latitude.
When Al Gore and George W. Bush finished in a Florida dead heat, Republicans viewed it like a normal recount. Democrats, in contrast, treated it like a continuation of the 2000 campaign.
Gore's operatives have made no secret of their basic Florida arithmetic. They calculated that the 300-vote Bush statewide margin following the full machine recount would be erased by Gold Coast hand recounts so long as Gore's deficit on overseas absentee ballots did not exceed 1,000 votes. The Gore campaign worked methodically to make sure that did not happen.
Mark Herron, a lawyer from the state capital of Tallahassee engaged in the Gore campaign legal effort, last Wednesday sent off a five-page letter to colleagues around the state addressed to "FDP (Florida Democratic Party) Lawyer." The subject: "Overseas Absentee Ballot Review and Protest." The instructions: "You are being asked to review these ballots to make a determination whether acceptance is legal under Florida law." It amounted to a quickie guide for tossing out the serviceman's vote.
It worked. In Jacksonville, election officials ignored an affidavit from an aircraft carrier postal clerk swearing that mail sent by naval personnel often lacks a postmark. Consequently, plenty of sailors lost their vote at 4:30 Saturday morning (including, for example, Donnie Haynes, Michael Gentry and Clifford Shearer from the USS George Washington).
Brevard County Republican Chairman Ray Marino went home at 11:30 p.m. Friday after seven and one-half hours of inspecting overseas ballots and wrote this memo:
"Gore had five attorneys there. Their sole objective was to disenfranchise the military absentee votes. They challenged each and every vote. Their sole intent was to disqualify each and every absentee voter. They constantly challenged military votes that were clearly legitimate, but they were able to disqualify them on a technicality. I have never been so frustrated in all my life as I was to see these people fight to prevent our active duty military from voting."
In Broward County, 92 overseas ballots were accepted and 304 rejected. In Miami-Dade County, 110 out of 113 were turned down. Statewide, 2,203 ballots were accepted and 1,420 rejected. As a result, Bush's net overseas gain was only 630 -- well short of the Gore camp's magic 1,000 number -- for an overall Florida lead of 930.
That meant only 930 votes need be won by Gore in the laborious hand-counting of heavily Democratic Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. They were working hard at it. David Fulcher, a lawyer from Jackson, Miss., sent to Palm Beach to help out, described to me a scene of chaos and confusion -- of Bush ballots put in the Gore pile, followed by protests and contentious arguments.
It became clear at mid-week, however, that Palm Beach would not yield enough new Gore votes. Pressure was successfully applied to canvassing boards in Broward and Miami-Dade to reverse themselves and order county-wide hand recounts. But late Saturday, when Gore planners became concerned about surpassing the 930-vote margin in the three counties, the rules were suddenly changed to permit easier tests for reading the intention of any voter who failed to make a hole in the punch card.
Is this any way to become president? There are prominent Democrats who privately doubt it. At the least, they say, no man or woman serving overseas in the U.S. military should be disenfranchised on a technicality. But the hard truth is that if those votes are to be restored, Al Gore will not be elected.