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Legal ruling may mean vote tumult
Judge voids House district's absentee ballots Indy Star. October 22, 2004 By Michele McNeil

A Marion County judge ordered Thursday hundreds of absentee votes thrown out in a west-central Indiana legislative district because a Republican candidate was not included on the ballot.

The decision by Judge Gary L. Miller could have broader implications, especially in what's expected to be a close race for governor.

Miller ruled that in the House District 46 race, R. Brooks LaPlante will take Jeff Lee's spot on all ballots including ones already printed. The legal tussle centers on whether Lee could withdraw from the race with just weeks to go before the election.

If Thursday's ruling stands and all absentee votes already cast are void, that would nullify votes in other races, too including governor.

So that could mean hundreds of votes not counted in a district, which includes Terre Haute, which leans Democratic.

"This isn't just about this race. It affects the governor's race, the attorney general's race all of the races," said Rep. Ed Mahern, D-Indianapolis, whose helping run legislative campaigns. "This is bad news for the voters."

Gov. Joe Kernan said Thursday he's most concerned about "the integrity of the election process." And making sure people's votes count, he said.

Republican Mitch Daniels has the same concern, said campaign manager Bill Oesterle. "People who cast their ballots in good faith deserve to have them counted."

The Democrats' attorney, William R. Groth, called the judge's order quite extraordinary and said it will cause significant practical problems for county election officials.

But Republican attorney James Bopp of Terre Haute blames the Democrats for the turmoil.

"The Democrats, by hook and by crook, attempted to prevent a candidate who lives in the district from being on the ballot," he said.

The dispute involves whose name will appear opposite Democrat Vern Tincher's in this district.

Lee won the May primary but then suddenly moved out of the district, creating a vacancy last month on the ballot. Republicans want as their choice LaPlante, a state representative who has been plagued with campaign finance reporting problems and decided earlier this year not to run again.

But Democrats charge Lee didn't really move, and that Republicans orchestrated a candidate switch because they were losing. Republicans need to keep this seat if they hope to take over the House, now narrowly controlled by Democrats 51-49.

The legal fight isn't over.

Democrats are asking the Court of Appeals and the Indiana Supreme Court to intervene. Meanwhile, a challenge to Lee's residency is pending in Vigo County.

The clerks in the district, which spans Vigo, Clay, Monroe and Owen counties, are left to deal with significant logistical problems.

In Vigo County, optical-scan readers used to count ballots would have to be reprogrammed. Officials aren't sure that can be done in time. And conducting such a crucial election with offices including president and governor up for grabs on paper ballots is a daunting thought, officials say.

Absentee ballots have been printed, and an untold number have been returned. Printing them again, and resending them, would be nearly impossible to do before the election, said Eric Frey, an attorney who represents the Vigo County Election Board.

"I've never seen any judge say votes don't count because someone later got off the ballot."

Star reporter Mary Beth Schneider contributed to this story.

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