Belle Glade Sun

Incumbent Hill wins by 3 votes after recount, protest

Pahokee election outcome changed by absentee ballots

PAHOKEE — The counting of absentee ballots on March 14, the day after Election Day, changed the outcome of one Pahokee City Commission race. The result triggered not only an automatic recount because of its closeness but also an Election Canvassing Board meeting last week, where the challenger who lost protested through her attorney.

The official outcome is that incumbent Commissioner Felisia Hill retained her seat by an edge of just three votes. By actual ballots cast at the polls on Tuesday, March 13, at the city’s two precincts, challenger Sara Perez appeared to have won election to the Group 2 commission seat with 274 votes to Commissioner Hill’s 212 (according to unofficial results reported that night by the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Office, or SOEO). But most of the 197 absentee ballots cast in the race went to Ms. Hill, 131 to 66, giving her 343 total votes to Ms. Perez’s 340. That tiny difference led to an automatic recount later in the week. A Pahokee Election Canvassing Board meeting then was called for the morning of Thursday, March 22, presided over by City Commissioner Clara Murvin. Commissioner Diane Walker and City Attorney Gary Brandenburg also sat as election canvassers (Mr. Brandenburg was sitting in for Mayor Keith Babb as he was out of town).

Mr. Brandenburg explained that they were meeting that morning to certify the results of the election as found in the recount and reported March 14 by the county SOEO. “The purpose of the canvassing board is to review the vote tabulation conducted by the supervisor of elections and determine if there are any irregularities in the vote count.”

In the recount, he said, “it was determined … that there were undervotes also cast in that race. An undervote is when a person decides not to vote in a race.” Fourteen were cast in Pahokee, those were separated out in the recount process, but then the canvassers, Mr. Brandenburg said, “felt it was best to look at each and every vote cast, and to ascertain if we could determine if there was a clear and unequivocal intention on behalf of any of those votes to put a vote down for any particular person.” They found one, he said, which added one vote to Ms. Hill’s total and left 13 undervotes. Ms. Perez’s attorney, Thomas Montgomery, appeared before the canvassing board and protested, first, that Mr. Brandenburg might have violated the Sunshine Law by advising the other two canvassers outside of public meetings. The more important point, though, Mr. Montgomery claimed secondly, was that a notice had gone out with mailed absentee ballots stating that one candidate had been found ineligible to run – as the SOEO had ruled after receiving a complaint that Ms. Perez did not reside in the city – and that therefore any ballots cast in that particular race would be thrown out and not count in the final result. However, a judge ruled just three days before the election that Ms. Perez was a legitimate Pahokee elector and thus was reinstated to the ballot.

“I would suggest to you that in this particular election, all of the absentee or mail-in votes should be excluded because the supervisor of elections … sent out a notice with those absentee ballots that if you voted for Sara Perez, your vote would not be counted, and that may explain the undervote where people voted and they did not vote in Group 2. I would suggest to you that this election was extremely close, and the issue about you certifying this election with the absentee ballots being included taints the election.

“You should exclude the absentee ballots and you should take the raw vote at the polls and certify (it),” Mr. Montgomery continued. “If you’re not prepared to do that, you need to not accept the count from the SOEO and you need to order a new election.” He said Ms. Perez had “filed supplemental pleadings with the court,” asking it to so rule if the board wouldn’t.

“In addition to that, Ms. Murvin should recuse herself from serving on the canvassing board,” he contended. “She’s a supporter of Ms. Hill. She testified at the hearing on the behalf of the city and Ms. Hill. She should have nothing to do with the certification of the results of this election.”

Mr. Montgomery added: “If what you’re saying is true, there were 13 ballots that were cast, as absentee ballots, that did not partake in Group 2. That means that those individuals were going to vote for Ms. Perez, and she would have won by 10 votes.”

In his remarks later, Mr. Brandenburg said those voters might just as well have been intending to vote for Commissioner Hill, making Mr. Montgomery’s statement that Ms. Perez would have won, purely speculative.

Mr. Brandenburg then made a motion, which Ms. Walker seconded, to certify the results as submitted by the county SOEO. The vote to do so was 2-1 in favor, with Ms. Murvin and Mr. Brandenburg voting yes, and Ms. Walker voting no. Ms. Perez did not respond to an email from The Sun inquiring whether she would further contest the final outcome in court.