FORT PIERCE — A split St. Lucie County canvassing board Friday night voted to recount all of the county's early ballots for the District 18 race, a decision Allen West 's team applauded and Patrick Murphy 's called illegal.
The decision came after a state elections auditor found a box of 306 early ballots that never were counted. David Drury, head of the Division of Elections Bureau of Voting Systems Certifications on hand for the audit, made a "personal" recommendation that the board rerun ballots from five early voting days that hadn't been counted. The board decided instead to count all eight days, which includes three days that had been recounted.
Drury and two more state auditors are studying St. Lucie's elections practices and will write a report on their findings at a time to be determined.
In the tight District 18 race that narrowly favored Democrat Murphy, the legal tussle started in a St. Lucie County courtroom and ended with the canvassing board deciding to recount all early ballots. The retabulation kicks off at 9 a.m. Saturday at the supervisor of elections office, with a tight window to finish since the board has to finalize results to send to the state by Sunday at noon. The state certifies all races Tuesday.
Supervisor of Elections Gertrude Walker wasn't on hand and spent the night in the hospital, said her attorney Cynthia Angelos.
During about an hourlong court hearing, Judge Dan Vaughn denied a motion by West, R-Palm Beach Gardens, to order a recount of all 37,379 early ballots. Vaughn ruled he didn't have authority to call for a recount, but said his decision didn't "bind the canvassing board from doing what they think is appropriate in these circumstances."
In the subsequent canvassing board meeting that spanned seven hours, two board members — County Commissioner Tod Mowery and Chief Deputy Court Administrator Marc Traum — thought there was ample reason to recount the remaining five days of early ballots. Their decisions followed more than an hour of heated testimony from lawyers and angry voters.
"We have the responsibility to try and restore trust in an election process that's clouded with uncertainty," Mowery said.
Kathryn Nelson , a 19th Judicial Circuit Court judge, dissented.
"My feeling is we don't have the legal authority to do that," Nelson said.
Lawyers for Patrick Murphy, the Democratic candidate for U.S. Congressional District 18, agreed. They said if the canvassing board decides to recount all early votes Friday afternoon, they would be breaking the law. They said statutes only lets canvassing boards retabulate the precincts and days that have specific problems, not a blanket recounting of votes.
Gerald Richman, a Murphy lawyer, said if a full early voting retabulation was ordered by the canvassing board, his counsel would likely take the case back to court with their own lawsuit.
"We were neutral, and now we're getting both sides threatening to sue us," said Dan McIntyre, a lawyer representing the canvassing board.
Technically, canvassing boards can perform only a "retabulation" — essentially, a recount that the board can order if there is suspected vote miscounting. Under state law, only a lead of 0.5 percent can trigger a recount in an election.
Walker admitted Tuesday there were errors where thousands of votes were either not counted or counted twice. She said the Sunday recount of 16,275 votes from the first three days of the month remedied the situation. She said Walker said the 21,000 votes from the other five days had no issues.
West campaign argued that the problems were likely widespread throughout the early voting period.
After the recount, West trailed Murphy by 1,907 votes, or 0.57 percent, across the Martin-St. Lucie-northern Palm Beach district. West lost 132 votes and his Democratic Jupiter opponent dropped 667 with the recount.
West's counsel has argued the huge swing in votes could be indicative of the rest of the early votes. West's lawyers also raised issue with absentee ballots, but the judge decided not to rule on that portion since it was added to West's motion late.
Military and overseas ballots, due Friday, were also counted districtwide.
West won 34 overseas votes to Murphy's 29 in Palm Beach County, three to Murphy's five in Martin and three to Murphy's six in St. Lucie, the Palm Beach Post reported.