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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Judge upholds Clemens' 17-ballot Senate victory

17

September

A box of disputed ballots from, of all places, Palm Beach County, arrives at the Tallahassee courthouse. Lawyers toss around terms like "voter intent" and "the will of the voter." Hundreds of miles from where the actual ballots were cast, a judge has to decide who's right.

Circuit Judge Terry Lewis didn't waste any time Monday.

As echoes of the 2000 presidential recount reverberated through the state capital, Lewis upheld Rep. Jeff Clemens' 17-vote victory over Rep. Mack Bernard in a razor-close Democratic primary for a state Senate seat in Palm Beach County.

In the courtroom, Lewis peered over 40 absentee ballots that were rejected by the Palm Beach County canvassing board as defective because the voters' signatures on the ballot envelope did not resemble the same voters' signatures on file with the elections office.

"There's no way I can say that's the same signature," Lewis said after examining Elizabeth Williams' absentee ballot. After looking at Stephanie Sterling's ballot envelope, Lewis said: "Different 'S.'" Of Takia Duncan's ballot envelope, Lewis said: "Looks like a different signature to me as well."

Mack's lawyer, J.C. Planas, a former Miami state representative, said Lewis was interpreting the law too narrowly. He tried to present affidavits from 23 absentee voters who swore that those were their ballots, but Lewis would not admit them into evidence.

Lewis said state election law -- changed after the 2000 recount that became a fiasco over determining "voter intent" -- is clear: He can't sit in judgment of what a voter meant to do, and if he views the local canvassing board's decisions as reasonable, he can't overrule them. "I don't think I can go behind that," Lewis said.

As a result, for now, Clemens is poised to become the newest member of the Senate from Palm Beach County.

"It was clearly frivolous," Clemens said afterward of Bernard's lawsuit. "They want to cherry-pick fraudulent votes that they feel are favorable to them."

Lewis also reviewed nine disputed provisional ballots, but did not allow them to be counted either. He noted that even if all nine were for Bernard, it wouldn't change the outcome of the election. But he wondered aloud why Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher didn't count two provisional ballots from people who didn't bring a photo ID to the polls, but whose signatures matched the signatures on file in her office.  

Planas said he planned an immediate appeal to the First District Court of Appeal. Planas said some of the disputed ballots were cast by Haitian-Americans who were confused by absentee ballot instructions, which is why they may have printed their names on a document rather than signed it.

[Last modified: Monday, September 17, 2012 4:41pm]

    

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