FORT PIERCE, Fla. — Two vote recounts and two Circuit Court hearings past election day, Jupiter Democrat Patrick Murphy remains the unofficial winner in a contest for U.S. House District 18, which covers much of the Treasure Coast and northern Palm Beach County.
A recount Saturday and Sunday of more than 37,000 St. Lucie County ballots from all eight days of early voting had been demanded by partisans of Allen West, R-Palm Beach Gardens, after Murphy's narrow victory Nov. 6. Results of that recount, announced shortly after 2 p.m. Sunday by St. Lucie County Canvassing Board member Tod Mowery, placed Murphy farther ahead of West than before the two-day effort began. The results killed West campaign hopes the recount would narrow the gap to less than 0.5 percent and trigger an automatic recount of all votes under state law.
"A lot of these ballots have been counted three times," Murphy said in a phone interview late Sunday afternoon. "I think the voters should be confident now."
There was a noon Sunday deadline for sending results to Tallahassee. That deadline passed while election workers were still secluded in Supervisor of Elections Gertrude Walker's office. Walker herself was not present. She was hospitalized Friday and her administrative assistant, Annie Clark, oversaw the weekend recount.
Murphy's campaign then declared itself the winner based on the deadline being passed.
"(Election workers) did miss the statutory deadline," West campaign manager Tim Edson said. "We're evaluating our options."
But Clark said election officials got the results to the state in time.
"We met the noon deadline," Clark said.
She added that final results of St. Lucie County voting would not be printed for distribution until Monday at the earliest.
Mowery said the final St. Lucie count was 65,841 votes for Murphy and 52,704 for West. Murphy picked up 274 votes, according to Mowery, while West gained 32 votes. The results are unofficial.Murphy said his campaign has been confident since Nov. 6 election night, when returns showed him leading West by a slim margin.
But West's campaign said there were irregularities in balloting on the first three days of early voting in St. Lucie County. West partisans were unhappy when Walker chose instead to recount three different days on Nov. 11.
That outcome still favored Murphy and West's campaign went to Circuit Court Friday to ask Judge Dan Vaughn to order a recount of all early ballots. Vaughn ruled his court did not have that authority, but added the county's Canvassing Board could act on its own accord.
That board voted 2-1 Friday night to recount all early ballots. Shortly after that recount started Saturday morning, Murphy's attorneys asked Circuit Judge Larry Schack to stop the recount on grounds that it was illegal under state law.
But Schack ruled against Murphy's request. The recount was finished Sunday, with results much the same as they had between 12 days earlier.
Murphy said he was anxious to start work in Washington, D.C.
"I think it's important that the people of the 18th District now have some stability," Murphy said, "and a representative they can go to in Washington with their questions and concerns."
West issued a prepared statement after Sunday's results.
"Since election day, we have been working for a fair and accurate accounting of the election outcome in which voters can put their full trust," West said. "We will review the results of today's recount and the other available data to determine how to proceed."
West added his campaign was awaiting a report by state election auditors this week, "which we hope will shed light on some of the outstanding issues."
Whether West will attempt further legal challenges remains an open question.
"We are still evaluating how to handle this," West campaign manager Tim Edson said. "It's a unique case."
It remains to be seen if other legal challenges will gain traction. Attorneys Jeffrey Scott Shapiro of Boca Raton and Mark Young of West Palm Beach petitioned Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner to recount every vote cast in the District 18 race. Both volunteered for West, but Edson said they sent their petitions independent of West's team.
Tequesta resident Beverly Joy Hires has petitioned Detzner for a recount of all St. Lucie County ballots.
Hires notably closed the Aug. 14 Republican primary for State House District 82 to all non-GOP voters last June, when she filed as a write-in candidate and prevented what would otherwise have been a universal primary contest open to all voters.
Hires donated money to the campaign of Republican opponent MaryLynn Magar, who then beat Hires with more than 90 percent of the votes cast Nov. 6.
The high-stakes, razor-thin, post election contest between Murphy and West was bound to fray nerves and it was showing during Sunday morning's recount.
There was an outburst at the entrance to the glass-enclosed recounting room about 10 a.m. and a sheriff's deputy intervened. Two men from opposing political camps
in the District 18 congressional contest had exchanged hostile words and some minor physical contact.
Neither man would volunteer his name, but each described his version of events.
The Murphy supporter, wearing an Obama shirt and cap, said the West man put a camera in his face. It prompted him to turn the cap backward, which displayed embroidery that said, "Commander-in-Chief Obama." The Murphy man said West's partisan reached around his head and tapped the brim of the cap, then called Obama a vulgar name.
The West supporter said he had his video camera running when the Murphy man elbowed him twice. He hollered that the man was harassing him and a nearby sheriff's deputy intervened.
Neither man was arrested and both remained in the building.
While the Murphy supporter was being interviewed, a woman with a West sticker on her shirt walked past and called him an idiot.
About 45 minutes past the noon deadline, West supporters awaiting results began a loud chant of "count our votes!" and several hollered pointed questions about the delay to Canvassing Boaad Chairwoman Judge Kathryn Nelson.