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Opponents in tight judicial race continue battle of results numbers  (FL)

JANE MUSGRAVE   Palm Beach Post    01 September 2008

Something went awry in last Tuesday's election, and it doesn't bode well for the upcoming presidential contest.

On those points, both camps in a hotly contested judicial race agree.
The two sides, however, differ vehemently on virtually everything else surrounding a two-day recount that ended about 1 a.m. Sunday, when a group of sleep-deprived officials declared that Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Richard Wennet had beaten challenger William Abramson by 60 votes.

Attorney Gerald Richman, representing Wennet, said Monday that he is confident the results are accurate, even though the total number of votes cast in the race ped from about 90,700 to 87,800.

Abramson, meanwhile, continued to insist that the results cannot be right. Not only were 2,900 fewer votes tallied in the race, but he said more than 3,400 ballots somehow disappeared between Tuesday and early Sunday, when the final numbers were crunched.

According to Abramson's numbers, which Richman disputes, only slightly more than 99,000 of the roughly 102,500 ballots that were cast were counted by the Palm Beach County Elections Canvassing Board during the recount.

"Where did 3,400 ballots go?" he asked. "Arthur Anderson has a lot of explaining to do. What happened to them? Did he use them to wallpaper his new condo?"

Reached at his home, Anderson, the county's supervisor of elections, said he did not believe the total number of ballots cast had ped. He plans to talk today with officials from Sequoia Voting Systems, which sold the county the $5.5 million optical-scan system that debuted countywide last week.

"We'll go back and look at all those numbers and look at the variations that occurred with Sequoia," Anderson said. "I want to look at where we were at each stage in the process."

But his office won't have a lot of time. The results must be certified to the state by 5 p.m. today.

Whether the canvassing board, which consists of County Court Judge Barry Cohen and two county commissioners, will meet or just sign off on the results is uncertain, Anderson said. Although no meeting is planned, he said, it may be necessary to call one, depending on the results of his in-office review of the numbers.

The difference in the vote totals in the judicial race may be a result of the "different sensitivities" of the machines tabulating the votes, Anderson said. The machines that recorded the votes at the polling places may have recorded votes that the high-speed machines used in the recount did not allow, he said.

The high-speed machines kicked out at least 11,000 ballots in which it appeared voters had failed to vote at all in the race - so-called "undervotes" - or in which they had voted for more than one candidate, an "overvote." Those were the only ballots that were hand-counted.

"Somehow the undervotes were counted that shouldn't have been counted in this race," Richman said of why the vote totals ped.

There should not have been such a disparity, he said: "They have to find a much better way to calibrate the machines in the field."

Richman said he shuddered to think about what would happen if a similar situation arose in November, when five times as many people are expected to flock to the polls.

Florida law gives county elections officials little time in which to conduct recounts. Richman said he did not see how there would be time to conduct a recount of 500,000 ballots or more, particularly if there were close votes in more than one race.

"I can't imagine the process if you have five times or six times more, which you're more than likely to have in the presidential election," he said.

Abramson expressed similar views. He is exploring whether to file a lawsuit that would claim gross negligence and ask to throw out the results of the recount.

Richman doubts that state law would give Abramson the right to lodge such a challenge.

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