Fact check: Did precinct in Allen West race have 900 ballots cast but only 7 registered voters?
11/20/2012 6:56 PM
11/20/2012 6:57 PM
Election night found U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Palm Beach Gardens, in unfamiliar territory: He hadn’t won, but he wasn’t convinced that he had lost either.
West clearly lost his first bid for Congress against U.S. Rep. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, in 2008. And two years later, he clearly thumped Klein.
But on the night of Nov. 6, 2012, state results showed Democrat Patrick Murphy narrowly ahead but outside of recount territory in one of the most expensive and high-profile U.S. House contests in the country. (West beat Klein in Congressional District 22 but then moved due to redistricting. You can read our full West fact-check file here.)
By the morning, West demanded a closer look at results in Congressional District 18, which spans parts of Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Martin counties. Most of the controversy centered on St. Lucie, which had trouble counting ballots.
That led to a whirlwind two weeks of court hearings, partial recounts, a visit by state election officials to monitor the mayhem, scrutiny of St. Lucie County election supervisor Gertrude Walker and around-the-clock news coverage. Every morsel was put under the microscope, including Murphy’s false claim that West had never shaken his hand, prompting the West campaign to point to a photo of the two candidates shaking hands at a debate.
A Nov. 18 article in the Palm Beach Post paraphrased West campaign manager Tim Edson raising questions about St. Lucie’s ballot counting. "Among them: Preliminary totals showed 900 voters cast ballots in Precinct 93, where only seven voters are registered, Edson said." The claim that about 900 voters casting ballots in a precinct with only 7 voters went viral and was repeated on a CBS news website and on a West fan page on Facebook.
"#AllenWestRecount - A Pct had - 7 registered voters in Guatemalan community and the tally showed 900 voted!!!!! - THIS IS NOT OFFICIAL YET - The commissioner has NOT announced ANYONE the winner or the numbers yet. They are STILL behind closed doors."
On Nov. 20, West conceded, though he continued to raise questions about St. Lucie County results. On the same day, a PolitiFact reader asked us about a claim he found on Facebook about Precinct 93. He asked us "Is this true and newsworthy? Or is it just conservatives whining that they lost?"
So we went in search of what went down in Precinct 93 -- otherwise known as Golden Ponds Recreation Center in St. Lucie County.
St. Lucie County and the ‘bungled’ count
First, some more background on the West-Murphy postelection battle in St. Lucie County, which started election night when the county had trouble reading ballots on tabulation machines.
You can read blow-by-blow accounts from the Palm Beach Post or the Associated Press.
As the door on West’s chances appeared to be closing, the Palm Beach Post wrote Nov. 18: "The St. Lucie County Canvassing Board missed a noon Nov. 18th deadline to file results to the state Division of Elections so that left previously submitted certified unofficial results standing: Murphy was ahead of West by about .58 percent."
The root of the confusion about Precinct 93
Part of the West campaign claim isn’t in dispute. The St. Lucie County Supervisor of Electionswebsite shows seven active voters in Precinct 93 -- three Democrats, three Republicans and one "other," as of September 2012.
Unofficial results dated Nov. 11 on the supervisor’s website showed that in Precinct 93, three ballots were cast for West and three for Murphy.
We spoke to Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, a volunteer attorney for the West campaign, on Nov. 20. He said that volunteers watching the recount during the Nov. 18th weekend saw a ballot-counting machine with a yellow Precinct 93 sign on it and the tabulation tape showed 1,552 ballots. That equaled about 776 votes because there are two different ballot cards per voter.
Voters were watching the recount behind cones and tape as sheriff’s deputies were nearby. The machine with the Precinct 93 sign was on the corner of the boundary, so it was one of the few machines where observers could see the tabulation tape, Shapiro said.
"There were a lot of volunteers who saw it and reported it to us," Shapiro said.
The West campaign asked St. Lucie County canvassing board member Tod Mowery -- a county commissioner -- about the machine.
"They told us Sunday that they used the Precinct 93 machine to run half of the ballots from Precinct 85 because it was such a large precinct," Shapiro said. "It still had the Precinct 93 sign on it. ... Because they didn’t change the sign it confused a lot of people."
Mowery "took us over to the machine to show the tabulation tape. It did say Precinct 85 on it. It was Sunday at about 3 o’clock. I was standing right there and I was talking to him."
Edson gave us this account in an email: "There was a machine that was mislabeled at the recount. When we looked at the tape for what we were told was Precinct 93, there were over 900 votes cast. It turned out that another precinct that had been counted on the same machine as 93. The matter was cleared up."
We also interviewed Mowery, a registered Republican.
Precinct 93 only had one early vote cast in this race, Mowery said. That’s why during the retabulation on Sunday, elections officials used the Precinct 93 machine to count a chunk of the ballots from Precinct 85, a much larger precinct.
Mowery said that after a news conference on Nov. 18, the West campaign asked him about Precinct 93. Mowery said he printed out the long form from the machine, which showed that the machine was counting results from Precinct 85.
"I took them over to the machine," Mowery said. "I showed them the actual receipt for the Precinct 85 tabulation data. They all agreed that was in fact the case."
Mowery said he asked the West campaign if they had additional questions about the Precinct 93 machine and they didn’t.
Before we give our ruling on this claim, we will wax nostalgic about our Allen West fact-checks. He claimed that about 80 of House Democrats are Communists and that he had higher security clearance than the president which we rated Pants on Fire. He also got a True rating for a claim about the number of people on Social Security Disability and a Mostly True for a claim about thecost of a missile.
For those who follow West on PolitiFact, there could be more to come. The Georgia GOP is ready to welcome their native son with open arms, which could mean our sister site PolitiFact Georgia could land some West fact-checks.
A Palm Beach Post article paraphrased West campaign manager Tim Edson saying that, "Preliminary totals showed 900 voters cast ballots in Precinct 93, where only seven voters are registered." The same claim was picked up by people on Facebook.
It's not true.
A machine that had the label of Precinct 93 was actually counting votes from another precinct. In the end, only six people voted in Precinct 93, which has seven total voters.
We rate this claim False.
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