In a victory for Republican George W. Bush, a U.S. district judge
yesterday ordered all Florida counties to reexamine discarded military
absentee ballots and to count them in final vote totals if they were
properly signed and dated.

The Bush campaign had sued five Florida counties for discarding the
ballots initially because they did not have a postmark when they

However, U.S. District Judge Lacey Collier,

in a 28-page ruling
issued Friday,
ordered the canvassing boards in those counties to accept some absentee ballots that were previously rejected by local elections officials.

According to unofficial tallies, 1,547 overseas absentee ballots — about 40 percent of the total Florida received — were thrown out by county elections workers, mostly because they lacked either a date or a signature, or in some cases because they were not filed by registered voters.

According to the order, Collier said the ballots should not have been discarded simply because they had no postmark. Furthermore, he ruled that federal write-in ballots must be accepted, even if there was no formal request for a write-in ballot.

“It is truly an unfortunate circumstance when a citizen of the United States is denied the fundamental right to vote, whether residing in one of the several states or residing overseas,” Collier wrote in his ruling. “It is even more unfortunate when a vote cast by a member of the armed forces serving abroad is rejected for no legitimate or compelling reason.”

“It is unfortunate that Florida will accept an overseas absentee ballot with an unsworn, handwritten date, yet questions the oath, under penalty of perjury, of many of its service men and women,” Collier said.

Ed Fleming, an attorney for the GOP, said he now expects rejected absentee ballots from all 67 Florida counties to be shipped to the capital of Tallahassee to be counted.

“The ruling could actually be the critical ruling,” Fleming told local ABC affiliate WEAR-TV. Referring to the state Supreme Court’s ruling yesterday mandating hand recounts, Fleming added: “For instance, if in Miami-Dade, they show 600 net votes for Gore, meaning that Al Gore takes the lead, we believe there’s hundreds of military ballots out there that will have to be counted under the mandate of this order.”

In his ruling, Collier also recommended that the Florida legislature — which met in special session yesterday to begin consideration of a new set of electors for Bush — change state statutes on absentee ballots to more closely match federal laws.

Collier also rejected a Bush campaign request to declare more than 600 overseas ballots — most from military personnel — valid because they were undated.

“Because Florida accepts overseas absentee ballots beyond election day, it must provide a way to assess that the vote was timely cast,” explained Collier.

The judge was specific in his instructions to local canvassing boards regarding their ballot responsibilities.

“The Court reminds the local canvassing boards … that their job is to accept votes, not reject them,” he wrote. “Election officials must diligently count every vote that substantially complies with a state’s election law absent any indication of fraud.”

Collier also noted that “there are some very real conflicts between federal and state law that, if not interpreted correctly, could disenfranchise the men and women who fight for the very principle that our democratic society is based — the fundamental right to vote.”

View the entire 28-page decision on absentee ballots made Friday by
U.S. District Judge Lacey Collier.

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