The race for Florida’s 18th Congressional district has taken an ugly turn, with charges of incompetence, illegal activity and possible fraud on the part of local election officials. Democratic challenger Patrick Murphy has declared victory with an apparent 160,328 votes to West’s 157,872. However, serious questions arose immediately about the integrity of the vote count, especially in St. Lucie County. On election night incumbent Republican Allen West had maintained a district-wide lead of nearly 2000 votes until St. Lucie County Supervisor of Elections Gertrude Walker inexplicably “recounted” thousands of early ballots, resulting in 4,400 vote shift to the challenger. Observers on the scene say the process is biased and the election results are fatally compromised. Mr. West is asking a court to impound the ballots and order a recount.
Jeffrey Scott Shapiro, a volunteer lawyer for the West campaign, told the Washington Times he is “starting have serious concerns about what is going on.” Mr. Shapiro noted that he is not speaking officially on behalf of the campaign but as a first hand witness seeking to get the facts on the record.
“We are not getting to observe the vote count,” he said. Mr. Shapiro has been overseeing the process at the Riveria Beach vote tabulation center. Temporary workers are helping the local staff oversee the count of absentee ballots, those damaged by voting machines, and ballots in which the three pages have become separated. They are making new ballots to replace the damaged ones, and are required to mark them with the same votes. Florida law allows observers to be present but they are being blocked from making sure the ballots are marked accurately.
A physical barrier had been erected making it impossible for the observers to see what was going on. After repeated objections, the observers were allowed to stand behind the people reproducing the ballots. But then the ballot workers blocked their view. “Half of the people reproducing the ballots are crowding together,” Mr. Shapiro said, “to make it impossible for anyone to see what they are doing.” He added that “there is a sense that since they spend so much time obstructing our view they are not reproducing [the ballots] correctly.”
An elderly man who stood up to try to get a better look at the ballots was ordered to sit down. When he asked why, Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher called a sheriff’s deputy to have him escorted out of the building. Team West volunteer Ellen Snyder has also faced the wrath of the supervisory staff. “They screamed at me twice” for asking questions she said, and threatened to have her removed.
Critical questions are also being raised about the estimated 8,000 military absentee ballots, These ballots could decide the election but were only picked up on Wednesday. They are being counted in an area that is off-limits to observers, but no explanation has been given why. Unlike the damaged ballots, the military ballots are not being reproduced but only counted. Yet from a distance Ms. Snyder saw a worker marking them. When she tried to bring this to the attention Mrs. Bucher’s assistant she was ignored. Another observer saw four military ballots in a row being peremptorily invalidated with no explanation. When Ms. Snyder tried to ask Mrs. Bucher a question about what was happening “she looked like she wanted to spit she was so mad. She is very hostile.”
Mrs. Bucher has been a problem throughout the process. When responding to a court order to open polls to early voters on the Sunday before the election, she only informed local Democrats. Republicans only heard about it later, and not from her. During the week she told Republican observers that the vote count was going to be ended and they did not have to show up. But when Mrs. Snyder came anyway she found the counting had continued. On Friday she ordered ballot workers to reproduce some ballots that were already reproduced. No clear explanation for this was given. An online video shows Mrs. Bucher rudely refusing to answer questions posed by local reporter Michele Kirk about the propriety of the vote count.
“I’ve never experienced anything like it,” Mr. Shapiro said. He is a former Democrat and had worked on John Kerry’s 2004 campaign legal team. He noted that he was treated much better by Democratic supervisors when he was a fellow party member. But now he is being treated like an enemy. “If we raise questions we are reprimanded and threatened to be expelled,” he said. “We are dealing with so much intimidation it has created a chilling effect.”
The West campaign is seeking a court-ordered recount, and also to have the ballots impounded before they are altered or destroyed. “Given the hostility and demonstrated incompetence of the St. Lucie County Supervisor of Elections,” the West campaign said, “we believe it is critical that a full hand recount of the ballots take place in St. Lucie County. We will continue to fight to ensure every vote is counted properly and fairly, and accordingly will pursue all legal means necessary.”
“There must be a state recount,” Mr. Shapiro said, “because we don’t have confidence that this race is being counted accurately and fairly.”