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Deja vu: Palm Beach ballots disputed; court decides winner

A box of disputed ballots in Palm Beach County is shipped to Tallahassee to break an election deadlock.

Lawyers toss around terms like "voter intent" in court and a judge has to decide whether the ballots should count.

As echoes of the 2000 recount reverberated through the state capital Monday, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis wasted no time.

"Statute's pretty clear," he said.

Quickly ruling that the 40 absentee ballots should not count, he in effect declared Rep. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth the winner of a Democratic state Senate seat over Rep. Mack Bernard of West Palm Beach by 17 votes out of more than 24,000 cast.

As the trailing candidate, Bernard's predicament was similar to Al Gore's in 2000: He needed to find votes. Fast.

Bernard zeroed in on 40 absentee ballots that were rejected by the Palm Beach County canvassing board because the voters' signatures on their absentee ballot certificates did not match the signatures on file with the county.

Lewis looked at every one of the 40 ballot envelopes.

In each case he agreed that they should not count.

"The 'W' is different," the judge said of Anastasia Williams' absentee paperwork.

"Doesn't look the same at all," he said of Harry Smith's envelope.

After reviewing the ballot envelopes, Lewis said: "To be honest, there weren't any that were really even that close."

Bernard's lawyer, J.C. Planas, pleaded with the judge to let him question the voters via Skype or at least read their affidavits, in which they swore under oath that they did cast the votes that Palm Beach County had cast aside.

Lewis said he couldn't do that, because the Legislature won't let him.

He cited House Bill 1355, the controversial rewrite of the elections code that lawmakers adopted last year, which limits a judge's discretion in reviewing a canvassing board's decision to reject absentee ballots.

"The circuit court may not review or consider any evidence other than the signatures on the voter's certificate and the signature of the elector in the registration records," the law reads. "The court's review of such issue shall be to determine only if the canvassing board abused its discretion."

In a delicious bit of irony, Clemens' lawyer, Ron Meyer, a Democratic critic of that GOP-led overhaul of the election laws, said it was clear: "What they (lawmakers) decided was, an illegal ballot is one that doesn't have matching signatures."

With the absentee ballots ruled illegal, attention shifted to nine provisional ballots in the Clemens-Bernard race.

Lewis didn't rule on those, noting that even if all nine were for Bernard, it wouldn't change the outcome.

Outside court, a defeated Planas promised an appeal and sounded like a member of Gore's old legal team.

"It's important to first make sure that all the votes that should have been counted are counted," Planas said.

Deja vu: Palm Beach ballots disputed; court decides winner 09/17/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 1:56am]
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