Postal ballots deliver on political suspense
The overseas ballots that could confirm George W. Bush's preliminary victory in Florida, or give it to Al Gore, are a wild card. No one yet knows how many there are, where they will come from, or how many have already been counted.
County election officials said yesterday they had received 4,039 absentee ballots in 65 of Florida's 67 counties, a big increase on the 2,300 send-in ballots counted in the 1996 presidential poll.
Ahead of the absentee count, Mr Bush leads by 300 votes in Florida, and a swing to either candidate could reinforce calls from outside Florida to settle their dispute. Another split vote could prolong efforts by either side to make up numbers through agonising re-counts and hair-splitting court appeals.
Most of the 2,300 absentee votes counted in Florida in the last presidential poll in 1996 went to Republican Bob Dole. This time as many as 10,000 ballots may be en route from Floridians in military bases around the world, many stirred by Republican promises to lift the morale and pay of the armed services. The officer class is generally quite politically inclined and votes eight to one for the Republicans; rank and file are more difficult to pigeon-hole.
Any military surge could be balanced by a big turnout from Israel, where many East Coast Jewish people who have retired to Florida spend a large part of their year. Some believe Mr Gore's decision to choose Senator Joseph Lieberman as his running mate may have sparked an unusually large overseas vote from US Jews living in Israel.
Absentee ballots must arrive by midnight on Friday, and insiders are urging caution as the deadline nears. 'They can be a minefield for anyone with a good lawyer,' said one Tallahassee Democratic operative. 'You've got to make sure they were post-marked on or before the date of the election on November 7. They must be verified by a signed witness who can vouch for a voter's identity. If it's close after Friday, expect a whole new legal front to open up.'