(ran West, Seminole, Beach editions)
For the first time in Pinellas since the presidential election debacle of 2000, a judge has been asked to decide an election.
Kathleen Quinn Litton lost her bid for re-election to the Lealman Fire Commission by 559 votes to political newcomer John Frank. The Pinellas County Elections Canvassing Board certified Frank as the winner.
However, mislabeled machines issued the wrong ballot to 633 people at five precincts, denying them the chance to vote in the Lealman race.
If 94.31 percent of those voters had cast ballots for her, she could have won.
Early on, Litton conceded that it was improbable that could have happened. But it was possible, she said, and last Tuesday she took the matter to court. A hearing has been scheduled for 9 a.m. Monday.
It's unclear what Litton wants from the court. Her "Contest of Election" recites facts and raises questions about the entire process, but never asks for anything specific:
"It is my opinion that the entire election has been tainted. The citizens of Lealman have a right to be heard through their voting privilege.
"Those involved in maintaining the sanctity of the election process should be given an opportunity to rectify the situation, especially in light of the negative attention the state of Florida has had to endure these past two years regarding the voting process. Last, as a candidate in this race, I feel I deserve proper closure."
Litton did not return phone calls asking for comment. Her husband, Mark, told a reporter that "she would have to prepare herself to talk to you."
Frank, her opponent, spent the week receiving congratulations from other elected officials and being introduced at the county's legislative delegation meeting as the new fire commissioner.
"That helped my spirits quite a bit," he said.
Frank said he was not worried about Monday's hearing.
This is the first election protest filed in Pinellas County under the state law that was enacted after the 2000 presidential snarl, Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said.
Before then, the canvassing board handled these issues and the courts dealt with more serious issues of election fraud, she said. Now the canvassing board can only count votes and certify the person who gets the most as the winner.
"This is new territory for us and for the court," Clark said. "My understanding is it's strictly up to the judge."
That means Andrews could do just about anything he thinks will solve the problem. He could affirm Frank as the winner. Or he could declare Litton the real winner. Or, he could order ballots to be mailed to the 633 folks who were given the wrong ballot. Or, he could order a new election.
It's unclear who would pay for a ballot mailing or for a new election. Generally speaking, the county bills municipalities and special districts, like Lealman, for the costs of an election.
But in this case, the need for a new or extended election would have been the county's fault. The Fire Commission might decide that the county needs to pay.
In the meantime, Frank is considered to be the new Lealman fire commissioner. He would have joined the board at a meeting Monday night, but commission head Mike Brophy decided to cancel it.
How close was it?
While voters in five precincts received the wrong ballot, the unofficial results from the Nov. 5 Lealman Fire Commisson election showed John Frank defeating Kathleen Quinn Litton by a slim margin:
Margin of victory: 559 votes
That margin represents 6.57 percent of all votes counted in the election.
Can Litton win?
There were 633 ballots issued in the precincts where the error occurred. For Litton to win the election, she would have to receive at least 597 of those votes _ the portion represented by the bars below:
(Frank bar): 36
(Litton bar): 597
A judge is scheduled to decide Monday if the outcome of the Lealman Fire Commission election will stand. The hearing, at 9 a.m. in the St. Petersburg Judicial Building, 545 First Ave. N, is open to the public.