Judge to count contested votes in Mack Bernard vs. Jeff Clemens State Senate race

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In a move reminiscent of the 2000 Florida recount, a Leon County circuit judge Thursday ordered Palm Beach County election officials to send up contested ballots to be recounted in a razor-thin race, reports Michael Peltier of the News Service of Florida.

This time, Circuit Judge Terry Lewis will review about 34 absentee ballots from the Democratic primary between state Reps. Jeff Clemens and Mack Bernard in Senate District 27. Clemens was declared the winner of the Palm Beach County district by 17 votes.

Bernard has challenged the outcome, saying that at least 34 absentee ballots and eight provisional ballots were incorrectly discarded. If counted, they would tip the balance in his favor.

Meeting with attorneys and state election officials Thursday afternoon, Lewis ordered the ballots to be transported to his chambers, where on Monday he will review the signatures on the ballots to see whether they match voter registration records.

The three members of the Palm Beach County Canvassing Commission concluded they do not.

The race between Clemens and Bernard in a Democratic stronghold was one of the most hotly contested primaries this year. Also pending in Leon County circuit court is a dispute about a close House race in Miami-Dade County between Democratic Reps. Barbara Watson and John Patrick Julien.

Under a Florida law passed after the 2000 presidential recount, local canvassing commissions are charged with reviewing questionable ballots. If questions are raised about their decisions, a circuit judge is given a very limited scope to review the findings.

If the judge finds that the board’s conclusion rejecting the ballot was reasonable, he is required to let the decision stand.

The lawsuit claims the absentee ballots were improperly rejected by officials who said the signatures on the forms didn’t match. In addition, eight provisional ballots were rejected without informing the voters of that fact.

“This lawsuit is very limited in scope,” said Bernard’s attorney, JC Planas, a former Republican House member. “We are not trying to invalidate any votes nor discard any votes. Quite the opposite, we are asking the court to count certain votes that should not have been rejected.”

Attached to the lawsuit were affidavits from 23 voters who say the signatures on the absentee ballots were their own. Another four eligible voters swore that their provisional ballots were improperly discarded and they were not informed, according to the complaint.

Clemens’ attorney, Ron Meyer, said Thursday that he was confident Lewis would validate the canvassing board’s decision.

“They are grasping at straws,” Meyer said of the challenge.

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.