Election 2012

State to help probe 799 missing votes in Allen West race

 

Palm Beach Post

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner is sending three representatives to St. Lucie County today to try to figure out how 799 votes disappeared in Sunday’s partial recount of the tight, nationally watched congressional race between Republican U.S. Rep. Allen West and Democrat Patrick Murphy.

“We are concerned whenever there is a question about the accuracy of results,” Detzner spokesman Chris Cate said Tuesday.

West, who trails Murphy by 1,907 votes or 0.58 percent in unofficial returns, has cited the problems with St. Lucie County’s counting of early votes in his refusal to concede the race.

West’s campaign filed a complaint in St. Lucie County Circuit Court on Tuesday asking a judge to order a recount of all 37,379 ballots cast in St. Lucie County during the eight-day early voting period. St. Lucie, Martin and northern Palm Beach counties make up congressional District 18.

West argues a full recount is justified because a partial recount on Sunday showed Murphy losing 667 votes and West losing 132 — a net gain of 535 votes for West.

Murphy’s lead remains larger than the 0.5 percent that triggers a recount under state law. But state law also empowers a county to conduct a “retabulation” of votes if it “determines that the unofficial returns may contain a counting error in which the vote tabulation system failed to count votes that were properly marked.”

During a press conference lasting more than an hour Tuesday, St. Lucie County Elections Supervisor Gertrude Walker acknowledged that errors were made in uploading results from the last three days of early voting but added that she believes those mistakes were corrected. “We are confident that every vote has been counted,” she said.

Walker would not commit to a full recount or re-tabulation of all the county’s early votes.

She told reporters that the county’s canvassing board followed state law by isolating when and where the ballot errors occurred and focusing on those specific votes.

“What the law requires is that the canvassing board correct the error” she said. “If they are able to isolate what the error is, that’s what they are supposed to retabulate. They’re not supposed to say ‘We’re going to do a recount of the entire county.’ ”

Walker has acknowledged since election night that her office had trouble uploading some electronic memory cartridges containing early ballots. But she said the cartridge problem was limited to ballots cast during the last three days of early voting and she insisted that revised results released by her office Sunday are accurate.

“I want to assure you that, whatever happened on election night in the haste to make sure we reported results, has been corrected and the actual votes cast were presented to you on Sunday,” she said Tuesday.

On Sunday, the county’s canvassing board recounted the 16,275 ballots from the last three days of early voting despite announcing earlier that it would recount all 37,379 ballots from all eight days of early voting.

Sunday’s partial recount revealed significant abnormalities. While Murphy and West lost a combined 799 votes, the two candidates for mayor of Fort Pierce gained a combined 484 votes.

In the Fort Pierce mayor’s race, Vince Gaskin was the narrow leader before Sunday’s exercise with 6,703 votes to 6,682 votes for Linda Hudson. But after Sunday’s recount or retabulation, Hudson gained 233 votes and Gaskin picked up 151 votes and Hudson became the new leader by 0.44 percent. That race is scheduled for a recount today.

In the Fort Pierce mayor’s race, Vince Gaskin was the narrow leader before Sunday’s exercise with 6,703 votes to 6,682 votes for Linda Hudson. But after Sunday’s recount or retabulation, Hudson gained 233 votes and Gaskin picked up 151 votes and Hudson became the new leader by 0.44 percent. That race is scheduled for a recount today.

Walker explained that elections officials determined that there was a problem that with the memory cards from Nov. 1 through Nov. 3. Some ballots were counted twice on those cards while others were not counted. She said that is possible that some ballots were not properly separated and were mistakenly placed on more than one memory card.

“I don’t have any problem saying that and I don’t have any problem confirming that that happened because mistakes can happen,” she said. “That’s why corrections are made and that’s why the board found it necessary to retabulate every ballot from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd.”

John Spradlin, the information and technology manager for St. Lucie County elections office, said about 3,635 votes scanned-in twice at various precincts in Port. St. Lucie.

The state Division of Elections talked with Walker before Sunday’s partial recount and thought that St. Lucie County would recount all its early ballots, spokesman Cate said.

“We were under the impression late Saturday based upon conversations only with the supervisor of elections that the county was going to be retabulating all eight days of their early voting. Our position was that the canvassing board had to be confident in the unofficial returns that it had reported,” Cate said.

Walker said that there was discussion of recounting all the early ballots, but that occurred before local elections officials were able to isolate when the ballot errors occurred.

The three Division of Elections employees sent by Detzner to observe and report on Walker’s office include the head of the division’s voting systems technology division. Walker is required under state law to give the state employees full access to her office and its records but Cate said the employees do not have the authority to direct Walker or the county’s canvassing board to take specific actions.

West campaign manager Tim Edson applauded Detzner’s action. “We’re hopeful that the secretary of state’s getting involved will shed light on the questions that Gertrude Walker is unwilling or unable to answer,” Edson said.

Walker said that she followed state instructions in conducting the retabulation. “I welcome them to come because that is something that I want to assure the voters that results signed off on are accurate,” she said. “I can tell you that they will verify that when they’re here.”

Walker said that her understanding was that the state elections officials would be traveling Wednesday and would not be present for Wednesday’s mayoral count. She added that it would be up to the state to decide whether there should be a recount.

“If the state orders a recount, the canvassing board and myself would be pleased to do that,” she said. “That’s our job. We just don’t have the authority to order a recount ourselves.”

In addition to demanding a full recount of early votes, West’s campaign wants to review voter sign-in sheets to compare the number of ballots cast to the number of people who showed up to vote.

Murphy, meanwhile, was in Washington Tuesday to start orientation for incoming House members. He said Monday he was “comfortable” with St. Lucie County’s vote-counting.

While the Division of Elections lists Murphy as the leader over West by a recount-proof margin, no results are considered official until the state certifies results Nov. 20.

“It’s time to get the election put behind us,” Murphy consultant Eric Johnson said. “There’s laws in place in Florida and after the certification is the time to file election contests…. At this point he (West) is just really doing publicity stunts.”

Former Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning, who was the elections supervisor in Pasco County for 26 years, said St. Lucie County’s decision to recount only a portion of early votes on Sunday invited uncertainty, especially after the incomplete recount showed a significant change in vote totals.

“If I were Allen West and my opponent lost 600-plus votes, I’d be a little steamed. Because how many votes would he lose if you did a full recount?” Browning said. “If I were to ask for a recount, I would never ask for a partial recount. All that does is leave questions.”

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