Eyes on Florida

Jeb Bush's state is at the center of the political storm again as election officials battle over putting Nader on the ballot.

By Julian Borger

Published September 15, 2004 2:15PM (EDT)

Florida and Jeb Bush, the president's brother, were once more at the center of a legal row over the presidential election yesterday, after Gov. Bush's administration intervened to ensure Ralph Nader was on the state ballot. Florida Democrats, fearing Nader will take votes away from them, accused the state government of flouting a court order Sept. 8 that removed the third-party candidate and veteran consumer activist from the ballot, on the grounds that the group sponsoring him, the Reform Party, was not a nationally recognized party.

Nader's lawyers challenged the verdict, but his name remained off the state ballot pending the appeal. However, Gov. Bush's secretary of state, Glenda Hood, has stepped in and submitted her own appeal -- which automatically suspended the court order, putting Nader back in the running just in time for absentee ballots to be mailed to 50,000 U.S. soldiers and other overseas voters by a Saturday deadline.

"This is blatant political maneuvering by Jeb Bush to give his brother a leg up on Election Day," the Florida Democratic Party's chairman, Scott Maddox, said. "And it's just plain wrong." Once Nader's name was on absentee ballots, the state government would use the fact to strengthen the case to include it on ballots across Florida on Election Day, Maddox claimed.

Democrats also pointed out that Nader's campaign had hired a Republican lawyer, Kenneth Sukhia, who worked for Bush in the dramatic 2000 election recount, as proof that the Bush White House was conniving in Nader's efforts to get on to the ballot.

Democratic outrage was fueled when Hood's office blamed Hurricane Ivan, which is bearing down on the Gulf of Mexico coast, for its unusual intervention on behalf of a third-party candidate.

A hearing on the case had been scheduled for Thursday, but the state elections director, Dawn Roberts, said that Ivan might make that hearing impossible, and potentially deny Nader's right to be on the ballot. "There remains a substantial question as to when such a hearing on the permanent injunction will be held, considering the track of Hurricane Ivan," Roberts said in a memorandum to county election supervisors who had just ordered new ballots printed without Nader's name.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans were being evacuated Tuesday from a swath of the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to the Florida Panhandle in the west of the state, in anticipation of the hurricane as it moved northwest out of the Caribbean.

Hood denied that the state government was taking sides, saying it was simply intervening to ensure that nobody's democratic rights were infringed. "We are acting as an honest broker," the Florida secretary of state said.

Gov. Bush's administration was the focus of complaints in 2000, when thousands of black Floridians were removed from electoral lists because they were wrongly classified as former felons without voting rights.

Hood's predecessor, Katherine Harris, was also attacked by Democrats at the time for summarily rejecting their appeals against the first vote count, and certifying the initial results that gave the state, and the presidency, to George W. Bush. After five weeks of legal wrangling, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in and awarded the election, by a one-vote majority, to Bush.

This year, the state is being carefully scrutinized for its conduct of the election, and was recently forced to abandon the use of another felons list that was found to be faulty. Democrats and civil rights activists have pointed toward the use this year of computer voting as a possible new source of errors and fraud.

Nader won 97,000 votes in Florida four years ago as the Green Party candidate, when Bush was declared to have clinched the election by a margin of only 537 votes over Al Gore. However, some polls this year have suggested he would draw no more votes away from John Kerry than from President Bush.

Julian Borger

Julian Borger is a correspondent for the Guardian.

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