The outcome of the United States' fractious and drawn-out presidential election could hinge on upward of 1,850 Florida absentee ballots that await tabulation Friday by election officials across the state.
While the election has been fought on a far bigger battlefield, with about 100 million votes cast, the relative handful of late-arriving overseas absentee ballots filed largely by military personnel and expatriates loom large with Texas Gov. George W. Bush holding a tenuous 300-vote lead in Florida over Vice President Al Gore.
A Los Angeles Times county by county survey found that as of Wednesday, 1,850 late absentee ballots are in the hands of elections officials but not yet counted. The ballots have trickled in, and the total is expected to rise modestly before 5 p.m. Friday, the deadline for absentee votes to be counted.
The Times survey also found that of all the absentee ballots received by Nov. 7, election day, Bush received about 62 percent to Gore's 38 percent.
That difference would be consistent with the 1996 presidential vote, when Republican Bob Dole -- who only won 42 percent of Florida's total turnout -- received 54 percent of the 2,227 Florida absentee votes counted after the election.
At this stage of the election, neither candidate has the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. But either would be put over the top by Florida's 25 electoral votes.
Under Florida law, absentee ballots issued to people within the United States must be returned to county elections offices by the close of the polls on election day. However, absentee ballots issued to overseas voters can be received as late as 5 p.m. Friday as long as they are filled out by Election Day, verified by a dated postmark or by a witnessed and dated signature.
County canvassing boards will review the ballots Friday, looking at postmarks and dates of signatures, to determine whether they are eligible to be counted. Those accepted will be certified Saturday.
A simmering issue in Florida involves who gets to vote by absentee ballot in the first place.
Florida law holds that absentee ballots are for Florida residents who cannot make it to the polls on election day. Yet over the years, absentee ballots have been filed by people who no longer live in Florida. And a pre-election mailing by the state Republican Party encouraged party faithful to request absentee ballots so they could vote "from the comfort of your own home."
The process is based on the honor system, down to how people register in the first place. There is no requirement to prove residency when registering to vote. And as long as a person maintains an address in Florida -- verified by elections officials successfully mailing a registration card to the listed address -- then the person can vote.
"Whatever address they put down, they are swearing to an oath that everything on the form is correct and that that is their legal residence," said Wilma Davio, a worker in the Escambia County Supervisor of Elections office, Florida's northwesternmost county.
Once registered, voters can ask for an absentee ballot by mail, telephone or in person. State law precludes one person from picking up more than two absentee ballots for family members.
But there is little to stop fraud by having one person register to vote at multiple addresses, or register under multiple assumed names at the same address, and request absentee ballots by providing matching information, including the registered voter's Social Security number.
Hans von Spakovsky, a Georgia elections official and adviser to the national Voting Integrity Project, an anti-voter fraud organization based in Arlington, Va., described Florida's voting laws as looser than most other states.
But, he said, he had seen no indications of fraud in this election.
"I don't see anything going on," said von Spakovsky, a Republican member of the Fulton County, Ga., Elections Board. "What I have seen is a PR battle being waged."
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