Judge refuses to halt early vote recount in St. Lucie County

FORT PIERCE — Circuit Court Judge Larry Schack has denied a motion by Democrat Patrick Murphy to halt the recount of early votes in St. Lucie County.

About 4:15 p.m., the judge made his ruling, saying if Murphy loses because of the recount, he still can contest the results of the election.

Meanwhile, workers in the Supervisor of Elections office on Okeechobee Road continued recounting the early votes for the tight District 18 congressional race.

Early Saturday morning, the Murphy campaign team announced they had filed a preliminary injunction to halt the recount, saying it was not legal.

Schack began the hearing in the early afternoon. The Murphy team won the first round, when Schack ruled against the county's request to quash Murphy's subpoena of Canvassing Board member Judge Kathryn Nelson. Nelson voted against recounting all eight days of early voting Friday night, but was outvoted by the other two board members.

"Judge Nelson said and believed that, to her knowledge, no evidence had been presented for errors that would allow a recount under state law," Murphy attorney Sean Domnick told Schacht.

As the clock neared 3:30 p.m., the court hearing continued. Republican Allen West's lawyer Chris Winkelman argued the Canvassing Board was within its rights to order a recount.

The recount began shortly after 11 a.m. in the race that has Murphy leading West. Supervisor of Elections Gertrude Walker was hospitalized on Friday and was not at Saturday's recount.

Before the recount started, Murphy's lawyer Liz Howard publicly informed the county Canvassing Board that the campaign had filed for a preliminary injunction to prevent the recount from going forward.

However, Assistant County Attorney Heather Young said she had not yet received any court orders and the recount of early voting ballots commenced.

Earlier in the morning, Canvassing Board member Tod Mowery addressed a crowd gathered behind a barrier of orange traffic cones that separated observers from machines and election workers. About 100 people were at the elections office this morning for the 9 a.m. recount.

Mowery confirmed that 306 uncounted ballots had been "noted" by state Division of Elections.

He later explained the 306 ballots that had not yet been counted were ballots that contained one or more write-in choices. All these ballots were cast on Nov. 1-3, the days which had been recounted last Sunday.

A write-in vote in any race caused the vote tabulating machines to reject the ballots, he said.

Regardless of what happens Saturday, the Fort Pierce mayoral race should not be effected. Mowery said all ballots had been recounted in that close race, which Linda Hudson won over Vince Gaskin.

Mowery said the presence of law officers was because there were open ballots in the room that needed protected.

In addition to observers from both Murphy and West campaigns, there also was a contingent from the U.S. House Administrative Committee. One of those observers, Mark Braden, said they had been called to Fort Pierce by the West campaign.

Braden said the District 18 contest was one of about a half-dozen races nationwide to which committee observers had been called. He was not able to immediately recall the others.

In a prepared statement issued this morning, West for Congress campaign manager Tim Edson said, "In a last-ditch effort to suppress the vote, Murphy's lawyers submitted sloppy and incomplete papers to the Court this morning to try to strong-arm the judge into preventing today's retabulation already underway.

"The Murphy team's motion is procedurally and substantively lacking. With every action attempted, Murphy demonstrates a complete lack of respect and utter disregard for the voters of St. Lucie County."

The decision to recount the ballots came after a state elections auditor on Friday found the 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 the St. Lucie County Canvassing 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 last Sunday.

The board has a tight window to finish the recount as it has to finalize results to send to the state by noon Sunday. The state certifies all races Tuesday.

On Friday, St. Lucie County Judge Dan Vaughn denied West's motion 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."

A subsequent seven-hour canvassing board meeting Friday, however, resulted in the board deciding to recount all of the ballots, despite questions about their legal authority to do so.

Lawyers for Murphy 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.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

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