Election do-over for Palm Beach County Senate seat up to court

Prospects of a costly election re-do in a Palm Beach County state Senate district now rest with a Leon County judge following a Tuesday hearing coinciding with the Legislature’s organization session.

Sen. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach, was sworn-in at 10:32 a.m. as a new senator. But just over a half-hour later, lawyers for Powell and political rivals Ruben Anderson, a Democrat, and Ron Berman, a Republican, were across the street from the Capitol battling over whether the primary and general election contests for Senate District 30 should be done over.

Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher, looking on in Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis’s courtroom, said a replay of the two recently completed elections could cost taxpayers more than $1 million.

Lewis said following the hour-long hearing that he would decide the case by the end of next week.

Anderson was disqualified in July after his bank did not honor his campaign’s $1,781.82 check to cover the candidate qualifying fee.

Florida law gives a candidate until the end of the qualifying period to correct such a situation. But Anderson, a pastor who retired from running his own landscaping business, had no remedy because his check was returned after qualifying closed.

Anderson, though, gained new legal life when the section of state law that thwarted him was declared unconstitutional in September by the Florida Supreme Court in a similar case involving the mayor’s race in Miami Gardens.

That ruling overturned results of Miami Gardens’ Aug. 30 mayor’s contest, with that race now set for Dec. 6 and a runoff slated for Dec. 20, if necessary.

Miami Gardens officials said the re-do will cost the city almost $200,000. They’ve eliminated three proposed City Council assistant positions to pay for the election.

Mark Herron, Powell’s attorney, argued Tuesday that Lewis should dismiss Anderson’s lawsuit, a challenge he brought within days of the high court’s September ruling.

Herron said that since Powell officially took office only minutes earlier, Florida law puts any challenge to whether he can be seated up to the Senate to sort out.

Similarly, Herron pointed out that the state’s Elections Canvassing Commission has just certified Powell’s election, and that panel is not included in the lawsuit – another reason for Lewis to toss the lawsuit, he argued.

Robert Hauser, Anderson’s lawyer, said Lewis faced a much more fundamental legal reason for ordering another election.

“The kind of problem we’re talking about here, a constitutional problem, has nothing to do with the way the ballots were counted,” Hauser said.

Ryan Berman, attorney for his father, Ron, said the canvassing commission’s role is “just a formality.”

Andrew Baumann, Bucher’s attorney, argued that events have overtaken Anderson’s bid to seek office, and that to order another primary and general election now would be a disservice to voters who already cast ballots.

Powell, a two-term state House member, beat Berman, the co-founder of Quicken Loans, by carrying 54 percent of the vote in this month’s election, less than three months after winning 67 percent of the Democratic primary vote in defeating Michael Steinger, a trial lawyer.

“We had an election already,” Baumann said. “We had tens of thousands of voters turn out and cast votes, absentee ballots, early voting, overseas and military ballots…all of this happened and Mr. Anderson did nothing.”

He warned that the challenge before Lewis threatened to “undo half-a-year of democracy.”

Powell, for his part, didn’t attend Tuesday’s hearing. But reached later by the Palm Beach Post, Powell said he was still looking forward to “an exciting opportunity to serve the people of District 30.”

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