Circuit judge upholds Jeff Clemens’ win in Senate District 27

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Democrat Jeff Clemens remains the victor in the Senate District 27 primary, at least for now, a Leon County circuit judge ruled Monday. The outcome, however, is expected to be immediately appealed by challenger Mack Bernard, reports Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.

Following a two-hour hearing, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis ruled that Palm Beach County election officials were justified in rejecting 40 absentee ballots that were submitted for the Aug. 14 primary in the heavily Democratic District. Clemens defeated Bernard by 17 votes.

While agreeing that nine disputed provisional ballots should be counted, Lewis denied a motion by Bernard’s attorney, JC Planas, to overturn Clemens’ victory, saying the outcome would not have changed even if the provisional ballots had counted.

As written, Lewis said changes made to the election laws last year were clear that canvassing board decisions were to be considered final unless a judge reviewing the ballot said the decision was clearly in error.

“I don’t know how else to read that statute,” Lewis said. “I don’t think I can go back and say, ‘Well you know what, that is not really a good idea.”

Planas, a former Republican state House member from Miami, said he will appeal the ruling to the 1st District Court of Appeal, arguing among other things that affidavits obtained by 23 voters swore to their ballots’ authenticity.

“People have a right to vote,” Planas said. “In order to invalidate that vote, (the canvassing board) must be held to a higher standard.”

Many of the contested ballots were cast by Haitian voters. Planas argued they may have had difficulty discerning whether they should print or sign their names. Unlike previous races, no Creole language ballots were issued for the primary, a void that Planas said should have been taken into account by the canvassing board.

Lewis said the law on absentee ballots was clear. As a circuit judge, he could only compare the signatures on the ballot and registration to see if the canvassing board could have reasonably rejected the ballot.

After reviewing the questionable ballots Monday, Lewis agreed with the canvassing board on all 40 absentee ballots, even if he may have made different decisions in some cases.

“Maybe that is something you could take to the Legislature, but as far as I interpret it, I cannot say that there has been unreasonable discretion,” Lewis told Planas.

Provisional ballots were another matter. Lewis said he agreed with Planas that such provisional ballots may indeed be valid, but said the issue was moot because there were not enough provisional ballots in question to alter the outcome of the race.

Following Lewis’ rulings, Clemens’ attorney Ron Meyer told reporters he was confident the ruling would withstand appellate review. As winner of the Democratic primary, Clemens faces only a write in candidate in November, virtually assuring his election to the 40-member chamber.

“Anybody looking at the signatures on the absentee ballots and comparing them to the voter registration would clearly see that those are not the same signatures – the court readily conceded that they weren’t even close,” Meyer said. “We suspect that any kind of appeal would be dead on arrival at the appellate court.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.