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Supervisor vote heads to court

December 16, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - What constitutes a valid vote is in the hands of Franklin County, Pa., Judge Douglas W. Herman, who will have to rule on 88 challenged ballots before a winner is determined in the disputed St. Thomas Township, Pa., supervisor race.

The recount was completed Monday, but Herman will not rule on the challenged ballots for at least five weeks, having scheduled oral arguments for Jan. 23.

In the meantime, attorneys for incumbent David Ramer and write-in challenger Frank Stearn are to submit their interpretations of each ballot in question by Dec. 22 and written briefs by Jan. 16, according to Herman's order.

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"I never thought it would take this long," Ramer said after the recount. The recount began on Dec. 9, but was suspended that afternoon and resumed Monday morning.

Without the 88 ballots challenged by both sides, Stearn said Ramer has a lead of 569 to 547. When the county board of elections tabulated the votes last month, Stearn led Ramer 593 to 587.

Stearn and attorney John Broujos are contesting some of the 16 standards for optically scanned paper ballot systems set earlier this year by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Elections' Voting Standards Development Board.

Broujos called the board "an administrative agency that sprung anew only because of a problem in Florida," referring to the 2000 presidential election. The much-contested Florida vote swung the election to George W. Bush and led to passage of the federal Help America Vote Act, which encouraged states to adopt clear standards for counting votes.

That, in turn, led Pennsylvania to pass legislation in 2002 setting standards for how votes are to be counted under the variety of systems used in the state's 67 counties, according to Jean Byers, the county's chief deputy clerk. Those standards were published last August in the Pennsylvania Bulletin, a legislative reference published by the state's Department of General Services.

Among the votes for Stearn being challenged by Ramer and attorneys Patrick and Carol Redding include those on which a voter filled in the straight party vote oval at the top of the ballot, but then wrote in Stearn's name and filled in the oval next to the space provided for a write-in. Under current standards, however, those would be valid votes for Stearn.

Also being challenged are 18 instances in which voters wrote Stearn's name, but failed to fill in the oval next to the space. The standards say those do not count, Byers said.

That standard existed prior to the most recent revisions of the state's election rules, but was not followed during recent elections in the county, Byers said.

"Based on several challenges to the law, we told our election board workers to count those votes based on voter intent," a practice that was followed through the spring primary, Byers said. Poll workers were directed to follow the standard and not count those votes in the general election, she said.

Stearn said the way paper ballots are handled in Pennsylvania is inconsistent. If an optical scanner is not used by a county to tabulate votes, then state standards rule a write-in is valid, even if the box or oval next to it is not checked or filled in.

Stearn said the only reason for filling in the oval is to assist the optical scanner in tabulating the vote, not determining voter intent. "The optical scanner is not the overall judge," he said.

"The standards are not controlling on the court. They are a starting point," Herman said before setting the schedule for arguments. "There may be compelling arguments for the court not to follow the standards."

"I just want the process to be right when it's done," Ramer said. "Win, lose or draw, it's got to be right."

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