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Absentee ballot suits may be Gore's best hope for Florida win

TALLAHASSEE, Florida (CNN) -- Vice President Al Gore's best chance to overcome Texas Gov. George W. Bush's 537-vote lead in Florida may be a lawsuit the Democrat has refused to join.

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In a trial Wednesday before Circuit Judge Nikki Clark in Tallahassee, Democrats from Seminole County are seeking to have 15,000 absentee ballots thrown out in that heavily Republican jurisdiction. The move would give Gore a lead of up to 5,000 votes in Florida, by Republican estimates. The case is being tried Wednesday in Tallahassee.

A similar case involving a smaller number of ballots in Martin County started Wednesday.

The Seminole County lawsuit was filed by Harry Jacobs, an attorney and volunteer election observer for the Democratic Party. Although the lawsuit is supported by the Florida Democratic party, lawyers for the Gore campaign have not joined in.

The suit argues that all 15,000 absentee ballots should be thrown out because county election officials allowed Republican officials to correct errors on thousands of absentee ballot applications -- not the ballots themselves, which can be verified by comparing signatures on file.

The pre-printed ballot applications didn't include the voters' registration numbers, as required by law. Republicans were allowed to correct the mistake so ballots could be sent out. The lawsuit does not accuse anyone of tampering with the actual ballots.

Jacobs argues that was illegal, and the ballots should be disqualified.

"To allow those voters' ballots to be counted when they were illegally issued then dilutes everyone else's vote who voted legally in this particular election," Jacobs said.

GOP: Cases show Democrats' desperation

Seminole County Elections Supervisor Sandra Goard is also under fire for allowing Republicans to use her office to correct the mistakes. The GOP calls Jacobs' suit -- and a similar one filed in Martin County, also heavily Republican -- representative of Democratic Party politics at its most desperate.

"This is an attempt to target Seminole County, which is Republican-rich country, where they know mathematically if they can throw out 15,000 votes, they can gain a 5,000 vote advantage for Al Gore in the statewide count," said Ken Wright, a lawyer for the state Republican Party.

At the first of several hearings on the case Tuesday, attorneys said Goard and Republican Party officials did nothing wrong.

"It's not an illegal act, it's not a felonious act and the plaintiffs are just wrong -- plain and simple," defense lawyer Jim Hattaway said.

The Republicans claim this is a "hyper-technicality" for which thousands of innocent voters should not be punished, and they noted that the absentee voters met all other requirements.

Gore offers sympathetic words for suits

Though Gore is not directly connected to the lawsuits, he suggested Tuesday they could be significant.

"More than enough votes were taken away from Democrats because they were not given the same access that Republicans were," Gore said in his most specific comments on the cases to date.

Repeating Democratic charges, Gore said that Republicans were allowed to come in and amend ballot applications, so they could be counted. Democrats, he said, were denied the same opportunity.

"Now that doesn't seem fair to me," Gore said, predicting that the two cases would wind up before the Florida Supreme Court.

While the merits of the lawsuit will be tried Wednesday, Gore could face a political problem by supporting the Seminole County case or its companion in Martin County, CNN election law analyst David Cardwell said.

It would be bad public relations, Cardwell said, to fight a case before one Florida court arguing that all ballots should be counted, while arguing before another that thousands of ballots should be thrown out.

CNN.com Writer Matt Smith contributed to this report.


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Tuesday, December 5, 2000

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