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Disputed fire board election resolved

An incumbent Lealman fire commissioner asks a judge to do one of three things. He chooses none.

By ANNE LINDBERG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 20, 2002

LEALMAN -- A judge made it final Monday: John Frank is the fire district's newest commissioner.

The decision confirmed what voters did two weeks ago, when first-time candidate Frank beat incumbent Kathleen Quinn Litton by 559 votes.

A decisive outcome was anything but. Because of human error at five precincts, 633 voters received the wrong ballot, one that did not contain the Lealman race.

Litton conceded that a win was unlikely but contested the results. The Lealman vote thus became the first county election to go to court under new laws created after the presidential election debacle of 2000.

"There's no question errors were made," Litton told Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court Judge Horace Andrews.

The court needed to protect the rights of those 633 people who did not get to vote, she said. The court also needed to think about other errors that might have been made. "Regardless of the ruling of this court, it is my hope that procedures will be put in place to prevent that happening again," she said.

She wondered if the ballot mixup caused the "high undervote" of 13 percent.

The undervotes in other fire races ranged from 15 to 20 percent. Undervotes are those people who failed to vote in a particular race.

Litton asked the court to do one of three things:

-- Grant an entirely new election.

-- Nullify the Nov. 5 election and leave Litton in office until the 2004 election.

Commissioners normally serve a four-year term. In this case, the term would be broken into two two-year terms with the winner of the 2004 election serving until 2006. At that time, the normal four-year cycle would begin again.

-- Allow the Lealman Fire Commission to choose who would fill the seat. The person would hold the seat only until the 2004 election, then run for a two-year term. In 2006, the required four-year term would resume.

Judge Patrick Caddell, head of the county canvassing board, said the computerized equipment was tested before election day. It was the equipment, he said, that allowed officials to figure out what happened and how many people were affected.

It's impossible, he said, to go to the next step and guess what someone might have done if given the correct ballot. The canvassing board cannot offer either candidate 100 percent certainty of how the 633 people would have voted, he said.

Undervotes are not a flaw, he said. Undervotes are those people who exercised their "sacred" constitutional right not to vote in a particular race.

The figures "basically show there are 633 disputed ballots," Caddell said. "The vote would have had to go about 95 percent (for Litton) to change the outcome. A statistician would probably tell you that is an impossibility."

It's impossible to have a partial election directed at just the 633 voters, Caddell said.

"The only way to redo an election is to redo an election completely," he said.

But there are practical concerns such as a smaller turnout. Lealman had 58 percent turnout Nov. 5 because it was a general election. A standalone fire election likely would bring out about 10 percent of the voters, he said.

Andrews agreed: "There can be no remedy fashioned."

After the decision, Litton shook hands with Caddell, Frank and the county attorney.

"While I've had my day in court and I'm disappointed in the outcome, I believe in the system and I respect the court's opinion," Litton said. "There will be no appeal."

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