Ballot papers inquiry casts fresh doubts on legitimacy of Bush

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The Independent US

The controversy surrounding the US presidential election was reignited yesterday by a claim that Florida officials accepted hundreds of "illegal" overseas ballots after being put under pressure from George Bush's supporters.

An investigation by The New York Times discovered 680 flawed ballot papers that were accepted as legitimate. Wheth-er these votes were for Mr Bush or his Democratic rival, Al Gore, was not clear, but four of five of the flawed papers were accepted in counties eventually won by Mr Bush. He was carried to the White House by a margin of 537 votes in Florida.

While the inquiry found no evidence of fraud, experts said that, without the flawed papers, the state might have been unable to declare a winner.

Joseph Lieberman, Mr Gore's vice-presidential running mate, said yesterday: "I will remain convinced for ever that the majority of the people who went to vote in Florida meant to vote for Al Gore and me." He said the case again highlighted the urgent need for electoral law reforms but he added: "The election is over ... we have to move on."

Last month, a report by the American Commission on Civil Rights found that black voters in Florida were 10 times more likely than whites to have their ballots rejected.

The latest inquiry, which has taken six months, is likely to carry more weight than most and again bring into question Mr Bush's legitimacy. It found that of the 2,490 overseas ballots from Americans living abroad that were counted as legal on election day, a total of 680 were questionable.

The newspaper said the flawed votes included ballots without postmarks or those postmarked after the election. Others lacked witness signatures or were mailed from towns and cities within America. There were even ballots from people who voted twice.

The Times said: "The unequal treatment of these ballots is at odds with statements by Bush campaign leaders and by the Florida Secretary of State, Katherine Harris, that rules should be applied uniformly and certainly not changed in the middle of a contested election."

Whether the disputed ballots won Mr Bush the election is unclear. A voting expert quoted by the Times, the Harvard academic Gary King, estimated discounting the disputed overseas ballots would have reduced his victory margin to 245 votes.

The Times study shows the Republicans' main goal was to count the maximum number of overseas ballots in counties won by Mr Bush, particularly those with a high concentration of military voters, who tend to be Republican supporters. At the same time, they sought to disqualify overseas ballots in counties won by Mr Gore.

In contrast, the Democrats were preoccupied mostly with manual recounts in several heavily Democratic counties.

Judge Anne Kaylor, a Democrat and chairwoman of the Polk County canvassing board, said a combination of Republican pressure and court rulings caused it to count some ballots that would have been considered illegal in the past. "I think the rules were bent," she said. "Any canvassing board that says they weren't under pressure is being less than candid."

Benjamin Ginsberg, a senior official with the Bush campaign, said: "We didn't ask anybody to do anything that wasn't in the law as it existed on election day."