WASHINGTON – The recount of presidential ballots in Florida hits close to home for at least two politically active Maryland residents.
Former GOP gubernatorial nominee Ellen Sauerbrey, whose narrow 1994 loss to Gov. Parris Glendening sparked a bitter electoral challenge, this week recommended three attorneys to help her Republican counterparts in Florida keep tabs on the recount.
And former Maryland congressional candidate Ralph Neas headed to Miami himself on Wednesday to interview local residents, in an effort to determine if voters there were misled or intimidated at polling places.
Neas, president of the People for the American Way, flew to Miami after he got a call from his group’s local chapter and has since immersed himself in questions of voter fraud and irregularities.
So far, he said, things in Florida have “just been extraordinary.”
For Sauerbrey, the Florida recount brings back not-so-fond memories.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” she said of a recount. “You’ve spent a year or a year and a half of your life running for office, caring passionately about what issues mean for the state.
“There were thousands and thousands of people helping and who were dedicated to the process,” said Sauerbrey.
After coming 6,000 votes short of winning the governor’s mansion, Sauerbrey spent months challenging the results, arguing that nearly 50,000 votes had been cast illegally.
Maryland law at the time only allowed recounts in primary elections, causing Sauerbrey to mount an unsuccessful court challenge of the results. Since her challenge, the law has been changed to allow recounts in general elections.
Sauerbrey said she sympathizes with this year’s presidential candidates after her own experience with a contested race.
“There are emotions that have to be going on with candidates who don’t know the outcome. Their political lives and futures are all on hold,” Sauerbrey said. “I can very much identify with these emotions and feelings.”
But Neas said Sauerbrey’s situation cannot even be compared to the current situation in Florida, where GOP nominee George W. Bush and Democratic nominee Al Gore are separated by just hundreds of votes out of more than 5 million cast.
It’s “apples and oranges,” Neas said. “This situation is markedly different.”
And Neas should know. He has been working nonstop since his plane landed Wednesday, talking with locals in an effort to determine what is actually fact amid the charges of fraud and irregularities.
Neas said the biggest problem lies in Palm Beach County, where 19,000 ballots were invalidated because they included votes for both Gore and Reform Party nominee Pat Buchanan In Miami, Neas has gone to several meetings where voters have charged that they were intimidated or mistreated by state and local officials.
Neas said his most important duty in Florida is to tell “people in positions of authority — Democrats, independents and Republicans — `Don’t rush to judgement. We’re talking about the most precious right of all, the right to vote.'”
Neas said he is not sure how much longer this contest will go on. While he hopes “to wrap things up in a couple of days, we have to make sure everyone has all of the facts and everyone’s right to vote is protected,” he said.
Sauerbrey said she recommended that Florida officials contact Maryland Republican Party attorney Chris West, state Delegate Bob Flanagan, R-Howard, and former U.S. Attorney George Beall. Both West and Flanagan were still in Maryland Thursday and Beall could not be reached for comment.