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Wennet retains spot on bench after two-day recount  (FL)

SUSAN SPENCER-WENDEL     Palm Beach Post    31 August 2008

WEST PALM BEACH At the exhausting end, it was Wennet.

After a two-day recount, Circuit Judge Richard Wennet had 60 more votes than his challenger, attorney William Abramson.
However, the vote count that was completed at 1 a.m. today sparked controversy.

Some 1,500 fewer votes were recorded for each candidate after the manual recount was completed. On election day, about 90,700 votes were cast in the election. Early today, the vote total stood at just over 87,800.

"How can 2,900 votes that counted on election day not count now?" said attorney David Shiner, who was representing Abramson.

Abramson, renowned in legal circles for his recalcitrance, immediately huddled with Shiner and others, after hugging his crying daughter.

"It is very clear that not every vote counted," Abramson said.

Wennet, when asked about discrepancy in the number, said: "I have no idea."

The election is not final until state officials certify the results this week.

It was not clear whether the elections canvassing board would meet today before sending the results to the state to meet a 3 p.m. deadline.

County Judge Barry Cohen, chief of the canvassing board, spent more than 18 hours at the tabulation center and was exhausted in the end.

When asked where the votes went, Cohen said "I have no intelligent statement to make. It is what it is."

Closer to 2 a.m., after everyone left, canvassing board member County Commissioner Mary McCarty, Supervisor of Elections Arthur Anderson and elections law specialist Ed Artau were still punching numbers into a calculator double-checking totals.

McCarty told Anderson he had a public relations problem on his hands.

"People will want to know 'Why the difference?' " she said.

Results in the Wennet-Abramson judicial race seesawed for days. On election night, Wennet was ahead by 18 votes out of more than 90,000 cast. After adding provisional ballot votes, Abramson pulled ahead by 17.

The razor-thin margin in the race put the county's new paper ballot/optical scanning to its first major test of how efficiently votes could be recounted. It was a litmus test for how things might go during the presidential election in November, when voter turnout could be more than five times what it was in this August primary.

The infinitesimal lead in the judicial race triggered a series of recounts as required by Florida law. First, a machine recount where ballots were again scanned, but this time by seven high-speed counting machines, Sequoia 400Cs.

On election day, ballots were scanned by machines located at each polling site. Cartridges from those machines were then read by machines at the tabulation center to produce election-day vote totals.

An estimated 4,800 fewer votes - total for both Abramson and Wennet - registered on the Sequoias after the machine recount. After the manual recount, that number dwindled to about 3,000.

Cohen and Anderson said those machines are much more "unforgiving," rejecting more ballots if the arrow isn't properly filled in, for example.

McCarty said "Every process has its flaws, including manual recount. But you do the best you can do. How those machines are calibrated, though, is very important."

She urged Anderson to contact the Sequoia manufacturer.

After the machine recount, then came a manual recount, as required by law when the victory margin is so narrow.

Two-person teams of elections office staff - each watched by a supporter of the candidates - physically examined an estimated 16,500 ballots on Saturday. Those were ballots where a voter did not check either candidate - called an undervote - or their vote wasn't clear enough to be picked up in Sequoia machines.

Attorney Darren Shull, a Wennet supporter, said he saw ballots where the vote appeared clearly and wondered why the machines didn't register it.

"Sometimes you're looking at it, going 'Huh?' " said Shull. "You don't know why."

Shull said he saw one ballot with lipstick on it, where the voter had apparently kissed it. That vote was for Wennet.

Canvassing board members reviewed any ballot where there was a questionable mark such as a check or a circle when voters should have just drawn a line from one end of the arrow to the other.

County Commissioner Addie Greene, a canvassing board member, chastised voters for doing so.

"It's so simple. You go in and connect the line. No checks, no smiley faces, no stars," Greene said. "We human beings have to learn to follow directions."

Gerald Richman, a lawyer for Wennet, is a seasoned slugger in elections issues. During the presidential election recount of 2000, weighing in for Al Gore, Richman launched lawsuits over 25,000 absentee ballots in Seminole and Martin counties.

Richman looked over the shoulders of canvassing board members as they reviewed questionable ballots - ballots where the marking or lack of marking was an issue.

Richman said afterward that voter intent on the new fill-in-the-arrow ballots is hard to figure out. "There is a lot of latitude, a lot of subjectivity," Richman said.

For example, if a voter placed a dot where they were supposed to draw a line, board members would have to decide whether to accept or reject the vote. Board members also considered "consistency," for example, whether the voter had made a dot on all their ions.

McCarty said that consistency was a guiding principle and that the board members tried to make as many votes count as possible.

Earlier in the evening, Richman said if the final tally was close, the election, like the infamous 2000 presidential election, "could end up in the courts again."

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