(CNSNews.com) - Votes from overseas military personnel should not be discounted simply because they lacked a postmark, said Democratic Attorney General Bob Butterworth in a letter Monday to Florida's 67 county elections supervisors.
"No man or woman in military service to this nation should have his or her vote rejected solely due to the absence of a postmark," he said.
Butterworth's letter comes on the heels of sharp criticism - from both Republicans and Democrats - of Democratic officials who threw out 1,500 postal ballots over the weekend, many of them from soldiers and sailors on active duty overseas, because their envelopes were not postmarked.
Senator Bob Graham, a Democrat from Florida, said election officials should "bend over backward" to have military votes count.
"The federal law provides that a postmark is not required for overseas-stationed military personnel," he said on NBC's "Today Show" Monday.
With Republican George W. Bush leading his Democratic rival Al Gore by less than 1,000 votes in Florida, the overseas military vote could be key to securing the state's 25 Electoral College votes and thus the presidency. The overseas vote boosted Bush's lead over Gore in Florida from 300 votes to 930 votes on Saturday.
Bush gained 1,380 votes among overseas absentee ballots compared to 750 for Gore.
Robert Maginnis, vice president of national security and foreign affairs with the Family Research Council, said the Florida administrative code specifically states that a postmark is not required on overseas military ballots.
"This is because of the unique circumstances of military life," said Maginnis, a former Army colonel. "For example, when three ships were diverted to the Persian Gulf to provide support and security for the bombed USS Cole and her crew, the Navy flew the ballots of the men and women on board those ships to Florida so that their votes could be delivered by the statutory deadline.
"Little did those who are laying their lives on the line in the Persian Gulf know that, in a change from previous elections, this year their ballots would be thrown out because they lacked something the law does not require - a postmark."
Historically, Republican candidates have benefited from Florida's overseas vote. In 1996, Republican Bob Dole, who won 42 percent of Florida's total turnout, received 54 percent of Florida's 2,000 absentee votes. After that election, the Defense Department determined that 64 percent of active-duty military voted. Of that figure, almost 90 percent voted by absentee ballot.
"Canvassing boards should count overseas ballots which are from qualified military electors and which bear no postmark if the ballot is signed and dated no later than the date of the election," wrote Butterworth, a fourth-term Democratic attorney general who served as Gore's state chairman in Florida.
The discard of military votes this weekend drew a sharp rebuke from Defense Secretary William Cohen, who is on a farewell tour of the Middle East and Persian Gulf states as the Pentagon chief.
"I'm not sure there is anything legally that can be done at this point given the rules that are in effect," Cohen told reporters Sunday, referring to Florida state rules.
"I would love to see them counted and that would be my hope," he said.
General Norman Schwarzkopf, the former Gulf War commander who now lives in Florida, blasted a five-page guide that advised Democratic tellers how to raise objections to the postal votes.
"It is a very sad day in our country when the men and women of the armed forces are serving abroad and facing danger on a daily basis ... and are denied the right to vote for the president of the United States who will be their commander in chief," he said.
A Pentagon spokesman said it is a Defense Department requirement that all mail be postmarked. "But just like in the United States, some mail might not get a cancellation stamp for a number of reasons, such as human error, or mechanical error ... but the policy of the Defense Department and that of the Military Postal Service is that all mail, whether it's postage free or not, must be cancelled or postmarked. But you'll always get a piece of mail that didn't have a postmark on it."
In Florida's Broward County alone, 92 overseas ballots were accepted while 304 - 76 percent - were rejected.