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Judge hears challenge to Putnam County sheriff race

Opponent claims 42 votes were illegally cast in race won by 16 votes

PALATKA, Fla. – Wednesday's trial hearing evidence in a challenge to last fall's razor-thin victory of Putnam County Sheriff Gator DeLoach ended with the judge saying he will rule later on the issue.

The attorney for Republican Jon Kinney presented evidence that 42 ballots were illegally cast, which would far exceed the 16-vote margin of victory by DeLoach, a Democrat. That attorney, Zachery Keller, said DeLoach won because of voter fraud.

According to the complaint, those ballots included 32 votes by convicted felons who have not had their voting rights restored, three ballots from people listed as deceased, three ballots from people who are not residents of Putnam County, two ballots received after Election Day, one ballot from a Putnam County resident who also voted in New Jersey and one from a person ruled mentally incompetent.

DeLoach admitted that some of the votes may have been illegally cast, but he said that it would be hard to prove who those people voted in the sheriff's race.

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"I don't like it that convicted felons voted any more than the next person does, and certainly we need to do everything we can and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law," DeLoach said Wednesday.

The race was a nail-biter since Election Day. Initial elections results showed Kinney with an 18-vote lead over DeLoach. But during a recount, 428 additional ballots were found that had not been entered into the voting machines. When the recount was done, DeLoach was ahead by 16 votes. He was sworn into office in January.

Kinney quickly filed a legal challenge to the election, accusing Putnam County elections officials and members of the Putnam County Canvassing Board of misconduct.

Putnam County's supervisor of elections, Charles Overturf III, was among two witnesses who testified Wednesday.

"It's been hard. It hasn't been a piece of cake," Kinney said. "My heart goes out to Mr. Overturf and his board and Sheriff DeLoach, because they're going through the same stress I am."

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DeLoach said he is confident he was lawfully elected.

"The reality is, we don't know if those folks even voted in the sheriff's race," DeLoach said.

Circuit Judge Gary Wilkinson did not say when he would rule on the challenge, but it would be at some point after final arguments are presented at an April 21 post-trial hearing.

If he finds Kinney's complaint valid, Wilkinson could throw out the 428 ballots, which would give the race to Kinney; the judge could void the election and call on the governor to appoint an interim sheriff until the next general election in 2018; or the judge could order a new election.

Independent analysis

Attorney Rod Sullivan, who isn't involved in the lawsuit, said he believes Kinney could have a case.

"To say that they did not report to the canvassing board that there were 428 votes missing, and then find them later is, in my opinion, an abuse of discretion to even consider those votes,” Sullivan said. “Because they were never reported as being missing."

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During a hearing last week, Kinney's lawyer filed an amended complaint, saying that evidence shows 42 ballots were illegally cast, which would far exceed the 16-vote margin of victory.  

Sullivan said even if that turned out to be true, proving if and how those ballots affected the outcome of the election would be difficult in a courtroom.

"Even if you knock out all of these votes, how many of them voted for one candidate? How many of them voted for the other? And would it overturn the election? That's very difficult to say,” Sullivan said.


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