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Stand Aside, Supremes -- Seminole Suit Takes Center Stage
by Dana Chasin

It is now December and the public's patience with the Presidential election controversy is holding steady. Somehow, despite a labyrinth of litigation and a state legislature desperately seeking a slate of electors, the American public discerns due process in progress in Florida and remains willing thus far to permit the Presidential election to reach its legitimate, if litigious, conclusion.

Finally, that patience will be rewarded this week. The legal disputes over hand counts are mere distractions stuck in legal limbo. The U.S. Supreme Court decided today to remand the case it heard last week back the Florida Supreme Court to reconsider. That is, the Court decided to decide nothing, for the time being. And Judge N. Sanders Sauls, in a decision certain to be appealed, has ruled not to allow recounts of the disputed hand-counted Palm Beach and Miami-Dade ballots.

So now the single most significant among all the post-election contests and cases concerns not hand counts but the absentee ballot dispute in Seminole County, which moves front and center, ready to receive long-overdue national attention.

The suit alleges that a Republican election supervisor in Seminole County permitted party functionaries to fix deficient absentee ballot applications by filling in legally-required but omitted voter registration numbers on applications, behind closed doors in County offices, without the knowledge or consent of Democrats. It also alleges that only GOP absentee ballot applications were fixed and that Democrats' applications remained deficient and, therefore, went uncounted.

On Wednesday, the lawsuit, which seeks to throw out a total of 15,000 absentee ballots on grounds of fraudulent tampering, will go to trial. If Judge Nikki Clark finds that only Republicans' ballot applications were fixed and only by and in the presence of Republicans, and rejects these ballots wholesale, Al Gore stands to gain a net 4,800 votes - enough to render moot all hand count litigation, overwhelm Gov. George W. Bush's current 537-vote lead in Florida, and give Vice President Al Gore the election.

Many legal questions in the Seminole case must be resolved before Judge Clark rules. But by her own admission, Seminole County Elections Supervisor Republican Sandra Goard allowed GOP operatives "unfettered" access for over a week to her office to fill in the required information on the ballot applications.

GOP attorneys contend that Florida law permits anyone to "assist a voter in filling out an application for an absentee ballot." Furthermore, they say, the Florida Supreme Court ruled in the Palm Beach, Miami-Dade, and Broward hand count case that the voters' intentions must be "paramount" - trumping technical deficiencies or efforts to correct them.

But the bottom line here, the issue not yet raised or ruled on in any of the various lawsuits in Florida or in Federal court, is fraud. Clerical misjudgments, butterfly ballots, inconsistent and ad hoc canvassing board standards relating to chads - these are all important considerations.

But fraud is another matter altogether, which is why the Seminole case is such a wild card. The statute of limitations on the whole Florida controversy is variously viewed as December 12 (the date that Federal law requires the states to appoint electors to send to the electoral college) or the point where Americans' patience wanes and they demand a concession. Substantiated allegations of fraud on a scale that could alter the outcome of the election would sweep this timetable away.

How plausible is a finding of fraud? Al Gore told NBC's Tom Brokaw in an interview last week that Democratic absentee applications lacking registration numbers in Seminole were not counted, while GOP applications arriving without these numbers were accepted. Here, in a nutshell, is the key factual showing that will support a claim of fraudulent obstruction of the supposedly paramount intent of the voters.

As Gore said to Brokaw, "one side was rejected; the other included. Doesn't sound fair to me." Nor will it to most Americans.

Thanks to Florida's sunshine law, the proceedings in Judge Clark's courtroom will be there for all to see. With more in question than whether or not to count dimpled chads, with issues of human ethical frailty, political expedience, even secrecy and possible conspiracy on full display, the public's interest may yet intensify.

In fact, the entire delicately balanced equation of this election standoff could well be upset, with unpredictable results. Any ruling by Judge Clark is bound to be appealed. Which court will render the final disposition of the case and when is uncertain. In the meantime, however, the public is likely to resist the rush to judgment and even the Florida legislature may not be so quick to appoint electors while the allegations of fraud in Seminole are being tried, with the Presidential election outcome in the balance.

DANA CHASIN is President of the Empire State Democratic Initiative (ESDI), a statewide membership organization providing opportunities to younger citizens of New York State to participate in the political process.