After a history of fraud and error with absentee ballots, culminating in a slew of criminal charges related to the 1997 mayoral race in Miami, the state of Florida last year imposed tighter rules on absentee voting. But the application of the rules has been far from uniform in the 2000 presidential election.
Attention so far has focused mainly on lawsuits brought by Democrats in Seminole and Martin counties, where Republican Party workers filled in information missing from requests for absentee ballots by GOP voters -- the very information that the new law required to try to prevent fraud.
Less noticed has been the practice in Okaloosa County, where election workers say they sent absentee ballots to voters who had not specifically requested them at all.
While fewer than one in 10 ballots statewide were from absentee voters, in heavily military Okaloosa in the Florida Panhandle, one out of every five ballots was cast by an absentee. Texas Gov. George W. Bush won 81 percent of those absentee votes, reaping an 8,600-vote net advantage from the county's absentee voting.
Linda McEwen, Okaloosa's absentee voting coordinator, said the county routinely creates an absentee ballot request for voters who do not request one, as long as the voter has filed a change-of-address notice saying they are temporarily outside the county.
"They're giving us a change of address, so we're going to put in a ballot request for them, even if they don't say they're requesting a ballot for the general election," McEwen said. "They think if they're sending the change-of-address information that we're smart enough to send them a ballot, and we are."
McEwen said she could not estimate how many absentee ballots were sent out that way in the presidential election.
Other election officials around the state said they believe the law clearly requires a voter to request an absentee ballot.
"There has to be a request for a ballot before the ballot would be accepted," said Margaret Dunn, absentee voting coordinator in Orange County, when asked about the Okaloosa practice. "How bizarre. Why would anybody do that? I can't believe a supervisor of elections in Florida would do that."
Ion Sancho, elections supervisor in Leon County, where the state capital is located, said his office would not treat a change-of-address form as a request for an absentee ballot. "We read the law to mean that it requires an affirmative request," he said.
Monroe County Election Supervisor Harry L. Sawyer Jr. also said a change-of-address request would not meet the criteria for requesting an absentee ballot.
"We do not mail an absentee ballot to anyone unless they request it," Sawyer said. "That's exactly what the law says. I'm not going to assume that if they're not here, they're requesting a ballot."
Okaloosa election supervisor Pat Hollarn, McEwen's boss, agreed that the law requires a request for an absentee ballot and said that her office makes sure there is a request on file for every ballot sent out. McEwen and another deputy in the office said, however, that the requests are sometimes created by Hollarn's staff, rather than by the voter.
"It is just assumed with our data entry personnel, even if the voters neglected to request an absentee, you mail one to them to avoid any purposeful disenfranchisement," said Paul Lux, a deputy supervisor who handles computers for the department.
Lux and McEwen said Okaloosa shows particular flexibility on absentees because it has such a large military population, including Eglin Air Force Base.
In many counties around the state, political parties mailed out cards that voters could use to request an absentee ballot. But the cards mailed by Republicans often did not contain all the information required by state law. In some counties, election supervisors honored requests with incomplete information, and in other counties Republican workers filled in the missing information after the cards were filed.
"We honored them," said Sancho in Tallahassee. "It is our philosophy that if a voter wants to legitimately cast a ballot and they're a legal resident of the jurisdiction, we're going to let them vote."
Sawyer said workers in his Key West office called and mailed letters to obtain any missing information from voters who had sent in Republican-supplied absentee ballot requests. "You're conflicted there," Sawyer said. "The nature of anyone who runs for this office is that you want to provide an opportunity for everyone to vote, no matter what. You want to let that person vote, but you can't."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.