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Poll-watcher group: Canvassing board flouted election audit rules

A poll-watcher group has accused the Palm Beach County Canvassing Board of election audit fraud and contempt of Florida’s public meetings laws during a Nov. 18 audit of the Nov. 8 election results.

»Read Citizens' Oversight Projects' amended complaint

In a Nov. 23 email to Florida and Palm Beach County elections officials, county commissioners and other county officials, Southern California-based Citizens’ Oversight Projects calls for the removal from office of all three canvassing board members: Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher, County Commissioner Steven Abrams, and County Judge Leonard Hanser. It also calls for a full investigation, followed by a change of canvassing board audit procedures and a redo of the audit.

“Florida has a very bad reputation regarding the manipulation of elections and this is a very bad example,” the group’s national coordinator, Raymond Lutz, said in the email.

Lutz, who describes himself as “progressive activist” on his Twitter account, also said he submitted a report to the FBI’s West Palm Beach field office. And he made a massive public records request for all the materials used in the audit.

Citizens Oversight Projects is based in El Cajon, near San Diego, but said it has members in Florida.

Lutz sent one complaint Nov. 23, then sent an amended one Tuesday in which he backed off some of his earlier allegations about how audit fraud might have occurred. But the second complaint still said, “We believe the manipulation of the selection process is a form of Election Audit Fraud.”

Meredith Beatrice, spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Elections, said Wednesday that her office was reviewing the complaint.

In the complaints, Lutz said he was one of four citizens present — he does not identify them — when the canvassing board met on Nov. 18 at the elections service center in Riviera Beach.

He said the issues arose when the canvassing board conducted the two random selections necessary to get the ballots it needs for the election audit: first randomly selecting a race from all the races on Palm Beach County ballots, then randomly selecting 1 percent of the precincts from that race for the audit. The board then manually counts that 1 percent to make sure it matches the totals from election night.

The race the board wound up picking was the merit retention vote for 4th District Court of Appeal Judge Melanie May.

Lutz’s complaint claims that before the first drawing, as the board was reviewing cards each labeled with the name of a race, Abrams paused as read aloud the card for Judge May, giving it “special handling” and changing his voice, “indicating he may have known the final selection in advance.”

Abrams said Monday, “I did not change my voice,” adding that Lutz “is confusing me with David Blaine,” the popular magician. Abrams declined further comment, saying he assumed the complaint “will otherwise be handled through normal channels.”

The complaint also accuses Hanser and staff of fiddling with the cards for an extended time before placing them in the bin, from which May’s card was drawn.

Hanser — by statute, the judge on the board serves as its chairman — said the canvassing board “complied fully with all applicable laws and rules.”

Both Hanser and Abrams commented before Lutz amended his complaint, and neither board member provided additional comment Wednesday. Bucher has not responded to requests for comment.

The alleged open-meeting violations stem from the distance that the public was kept from the audit process.

Lutz’s complaint said the audit is supposed to be conducted in public under Florida law, but observers were placed 30 to 40 feet away, despite the board having no issues of security or privacy. Lutz said canvassers also used a flat table top. As a result, he said, there was no way for observers to hear or see what the board did.

Lutz also complained that canvassing board members held private conversations at the table.

Barbara Petersen, president of Florida’s First Amendment Foundation, told The Palm Beach Post Monday that holding inaudible discussions and keeping people so far away they can’t hear or see are potential criminal violations of the state’s Sunshine Law.

“If a judge determined the board violated the Sunshine Law, any action taken as a result of that violation is void,” Petersen said, meaning not that the election must be re-held, but that the audit must be redone.

“If they (the canvassing board) intentionally violated the law, then they could be suspended or removed from office,” she continued.

Lutz’s complaint said in other venues he has sat at the same table as canvassers, but that when he tried to get closer and take photos at the Palm Beach County canvass, Bucher “blocked his view and became confrontational.”

The complaint said it was only then that the board agreed to hold up the cards and read the races aloud during the pre-selection review. But it also was soon after that Lutz was ejected from the building.

A 12½-minute video supplied by Citizens shows Bucher calling deputies, saying Lutz is trying to go to a non-public area.

“He’s disrupting our canvassing board and he needs to be ejected from this building,” Bucher says.

“I’m happy to be arrested for this,” Lutz is heard saying. All the while, Abrams continues to call out race names from the cards.

A Palm Beach County Sheriff’s report says the deputy watched as Bucher ordered Lutz out and issued him a trespass warning and said Lutz then left without incident.

Lutz told The Post Monday night by phone he was ordered to leave after he tried to photograph the precincts selected for the audit, but the board wouldn’t let him get closer than 30 feet, and canvassing board members refused to take his cellphone and photograph the card themselves.

“Without the intervention by Mr. Lutz, the public would have been unable to see anything,” his complaint said.

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