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Absentee Vote Did It for Bush Election: Gov. Jeb Bush's letter helped provide the edge. But critics cry foul over its 'comfort' message and an image of the Florida state seal. RICHARD A. SERRANO TIMES STAFF WRITER

July 15 2001

WASHINGTON -- In an extraordinary get-out-the-vote effort that helped put George W. Bush in the White House, Florida's Republican Party mounted an aggressive appeal to party faithful--complete with a letter from Gov. Jeb Bush--to cast absentee ballots before the Nov. 7 election.

"Vote from the comfort of your home," Jeb Bush urged in the letter, which was superimposed over what appeared to be an image of the state seal. And vote they did. A survey of Florida's 67 counties shows that more than 700,000 Florida voters--or almost 1 in 8--voted absentee. George W. Bush, the governor's brother, captured about 125,000 more absentee votes than his Democratic rival, Al Gore.

That margin dwarfs Bush's official 537-vote edge in the Sunshine State. And Florida in turn put Bush over the top in the electoral college. The gigantic but largely invisible absentee ballot blitz was the GOP's secret weapon in the Florida campaign. But it was almost entirely overlooked during the suspenseful five-week recount of the Florida vote last fall, when the presidency hung in the balance.

Republicans say it was a smart, successful gambit. But some Democrats believe it took unfair advantage of both the governor's office and the absentee voting process. Under Florida law, voters could cast absentee ballots only if they were unable to go to their regular polling places on election day. But Jeb Bush's letter didn't say that (although the absentee ballot application that came with it did). Many voters appear to have cast their ballots absentee merely as a matter of convenience, as Bush's letter suggested.

Moreover, Florida law forbids using the state seal for partisan purposes. Two civil suits were filed challenging the Republican absentee voter drive. Both were dismissed, and one of the judges suggested that criminal prosecutions might have been more appropriate. Local prosecutors took no such action.

Some Republican operatives admit that if either of the civil suits had prevailed, enough absentee ballots could have been thrown out to swing the election to Gore. "It was a hidden time bomb," Barry Richard, George W. Bush's lead attorney in Tallahassee during the recount period, acknowledged in a recent interview. "It was our first battle, but nobody noticed it. And it could have ended the whole case." By national standards, the incidence of absentee voting in Florida was not exceptionally high. In California, for example, 1 in 4 ballots last November was absentee.

But in Florida, absentee voting may never have been more common. While 1 voter in 8 voted absentee last year, only 1 in 11 did in 1996. The 700,000-plus absentee ballots cast in Florida last year exceeded the total in the 1996 presidential race by nearly 50%. Of the additional 690,000 votes cast in Florida in 2000 over 1996, absentee ballots accounted for one-third.

In virtually every county, Bush ran far stronger among the absentees than among those who turned out at the polls on election day. In Florida's largest county, Miami-Dade, Gore rolled to a nearly 47,000-vote victory on election day. But among the absentees, Bush outpolled Gore by more than 7,000 votes, reducing his countywide margin to fewer than 40,000.

David Leahy, the county election supervisor, said he had no doubt that Jeb Bush's letter--and the accompanying ballot application--drove the high GOP absentee turnout. "A lot of people voted absentee ballots because of it, and it might have been the difference in the election," Leahy said. "The people who received these letters acted on them. We got a significant amount of response to them."

Florida's GOP spent $500,000 producing the letter and mass-mailing it to Republican voters. The envelopes urged voters to "Please open immediately. . . . Important message from Governor Jeb Bush enclosed." Next to that was the headline, "Vote by Mail"; next to that, a picture of a mailbox.

The letter, over Jeb Bush's signature, was titled: "From the Desk of Governor Jeb Bush; Vote From the Comfort of Your Home." The letter was superimposed over what appears to be the state imprimatur, the Great Seal of the State of Florida.

"Dear Fellow Republican," the letter began. "It has been an exciting year in the state of Florida." The letter noted GOP efforts to reduce taxes and at the same time improve education, health care and the environment. "You may vote early by requesting a mail-in ballot by using the request card attached," the letter said. The card said the undersigned would not be able to go to the polls on election day.

"Simply sign the card, provide the last four digits of your Social Security number, as required by law, and mail it in today," the letter instructed. "Within a few weeks you will receive your ballot material. You may then vote from the comfort of your own home." The cards were addressed to the GOP Ballot Assistance Committee, which saw to it that the voters were given absentee ballots. For voters who did not mail in their absentee ballots, Republican operatives arranged rides to polling places in the days before the election.

"I've never seen so many people wanting to vote absentee, and in person," said Leahy of Miami-Dade County. "We've never had anything quite like this turnout." Jamie Wilson, executive director of the Florida Republican Party through the election, said the absentee ballot drive was "massive. . . . It was a significant effort to make sure folks who wanted the opportunity to vote could vote." He defended the Jeb Bush letter, saying, "The governor is head of the Republican Party. He was making a request of voters."

The Democrats had a much more modest absentee drive, centered on a traditional mailer about the importance of voting. It gave voters a number to call to get a ride to the polls. On Oct. 20, 2 1/2 weeks before the election, the Democrats filed suit in Tallahassee accusing the governor of misusing the state seal and asking him to apologize.

On Nov. 3, four days before the election, Leon County Judge Terry P. Lewis dismissed the suit, saying that citizens did not have the right to disenfranchise other voters. He suggested, instead, that a criminal law may have been broken because it is illegal to use the state seal for political purposes.

Aides said the governor did not know the seal would be used on the letter. In fact, Barry Richard, who defended Jeb Bush in the lawsuit and later defended George W. Bush in the recount, said the real state seal was not used. Richard said the Florida Republican Party contracted with a Texas printer to prepare the letter but did not supply the printer with a copy of the state seal. The printer turned to the Internet for a copy, Richard said, and stumbled on an out-of-date version.

James Foster, head of James Foster and Associates, the printer, declined to discuss how he came to use an obsolete seal. "I don't talk to reporters," he said. Alvin Peters, a Panama City, Fla., attorney, brought the second suit on Nov. 22 on behalf of Cynthia McCauley, a schoolteacher, Republican voter and the wife of his law partner.

"It made me mad on a hundred levels," she said of the Jeb Bush letter. "When I got the governor's little brochure, with the gold tint on the seal, I was just kind of turning in circles." Peters wanted all of the absentee votes in his community, Bay County, thrown out. George W. Bush received 8,969 absentee votes to Gore's 3,327. The difference--5,642 votes--was large enough that, had the suit prevailed, Gore would have won the election. "It was quite a get-out-the-vote technique," Peters said.

But Leon County Judge L. Ralph Smith Jr. dismissed the suit, saying that he too believed a criminal complaint was the proper course. "That violation can be prosecuted by the proper public officials of this state," the judge ruled. "And if there was any violation of the law for misstating the Florida law regarding absentee voting, that violation can also be prosecuted by public officials."

No criminal charges were filed. Peters appealed to the state Supreme Court, which ruled the matter moot after the U.S. Supreme Court brought an end to the recount. Richard, the lawyer for the Bush brothers, said that, had either the Tallahassee or the Bay County lawsuit succeeded, the GOP would have had no place to go. The federal courts, he said, would not have heard appeals because they would have viewed the cases as strictly state matters.

McCauley agreed. "It would have ended it for Bush. There were truckloads of absentee ballots, and, truly, the average person, when they got the letter, thought that this was fine. "That explains why the polls were overwhelmed with absentees. The workers had to walk down the line with baskets and have people dump their ballots into the baskets, the lines were so long."

In Bay County, 1 voter in 5 voted absentee--one of the highest ratios in the state. The same ratio prevailed in Okaloosa County in the Florida panhandle. Okaloosa County Elections Supervisor Pat Hollarn said she brought in about 14 extra temporary workers to handle the crush in what is historically GOP territory. "This is a military community. We have multiple military bases here, and we are infested with military retirees like me. So really, we weren't surprised by anything that happened."

At the polls on election day, Bay County voters chose Bush over Gore by nearly 2 to 1. But among the absentee voters, his margin was greater than 2 1/2 to 1. As in Bay County, precinct workers throughout Florida remember large lines of absentee voters dropping off their ballots at polling places during the days before election day. Armies of temporary workers were hired to handle the crowds. Extra equipment was brought in to accommodate the crush.

Republicans had anticipated that the overseas military vote might be crucial. They outspent the Democrats, 8 to 1, in advertising designed to reach overseas military personnel. The GOP's $650,000 advertising campaign, which featured full-page ads in Stars and Stripes and television commercials on CNN International in September and October, took Democrats by surprise.

"It happened so late," said Tom Fina, executive director of Democrats Abroad. Fina said the Democrats had concentrated their efforts months earlier, figuring that a late campaign would not give overseas voters enough time to get ballots and mail them back to Florida. He decided that most Democrats who voted overseas had already sent in their absentee ballots before election day.

The Republicans, by contrast, concluded that many overseas ballots were still outstanding as election day approached--and that many were military votes that would benefit Bush. The job of tracking those ballots--and making sure they were counted--fell to Republican strategist Warren Tompkins of South Carolina. Republicans called each of Florida's 67 county election supervisors for information on counting how many ballots had been sent out, who had requested them and how many had been returned. Day by day, they tracked the ballots as they trickled in. "We started getting calls from servicemen, saying their spouse or daughter or son voted and the ballot was still sitting on a ship somewhere," Tompkins recalled.

Republican members of Congress lobbied the Defense Department to do everything it could to make sure the mail was delivered in time for Florida's Nov. 17 deadline for military ballots. At one point, Tompkins said, Republicans learned that 1,000 votes were outstanding in Jacksonville. "The margin of victory," he said, "was in those ballots."

The New York Times conducted a six-month investigation of only those absentee ballots sent from abroad. Of the 2,490 such ballots counted after election day, the newspaper found 680 questionable votes, according to a report in today's editions. Those included ballots without postmarks to prove they were mailed by Nov. 7 and duplicate ballots from the same voter. Florida law says U.S.-mailed ballots must be counted by election day, while overseas ballots have an extra 10 days.

In response to an aggressive effort by the Bush campaign, the newspaper said, election officials were much more likely to count questionable overseas ballots in Bush strongholds than in counties that Gore won. But the paper said it did not know for whom those 680 ballots were cast. A statistician consulted by the newspaper concluded that, if those 680 ballots had not counted, Bush probably would still have won, but by only 245 votes. He said there was only a "slight chance" that discarding those ballots would have swung the election to Gore.

Thanks to the overall absentee vote, Bush already led Gore in Florida by 125,000 votes when election day dawned. Gore was the choice of voters on Nov. 7--but, according to the official certified results, by 537 fewer votes than Bush's margin among absentee voters. On election night, GOP operatives were aware that the absentee voters had not participated in the exit polls that the television networks were using to determine the winner of Florida's presidential sweepstakes. So they were not unduly alarmed when the networks at first put Florida in Gore's camp. Randy Enwright, a Bush consultant and former state Republican executive director who helped develop the party's drive for absentee votes, said: "That was a large part of the reason I didn't think the election was over on election night."

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Times staff writers Mike Clary, Bob Drogin and Lisa Getter contributed to this story. Copyright 2001, Los Angeles Times