A judge ruled yesterday in favor of Doreen Farr’s motion to exclude evidence from the upcoming election suit against her, making Steve Pappas’s uphill legal battle to unseat the 3rd District supervisor even steeper.
In a pre-trial hearing at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, Superior Court Justice William McLafferty ruled that he would not consider a substantial portion of the evidence that Pappas’ legal team planned to use in his suit to challenge ballots cast by first-time voters in Isla Vista and UCSB in the November election. All evidence regarding voter registration cards from drives turned in late or without signatures from registration drive workers will not be allowed in next week’s trial.
Much of Pappas’ case rested on these two common irregularities.
At the heart of the afternoon’s legal debate was the question of whether such technical flaws with voter registration cards justify invalidating a vote. According to Jeff Lake, Pappas’ attorney, widespread negligence on the part of registration drive volunteers and the county registrar’s failure to properly handle and verify registration information should invalidate the ballots of the voters.
“In America, voting is not an inalienable right, but a privilege,” Lake said. “A condition precedent to voting is to be properly registered.”
At yesterday’s hearing, Lake said his team intended to prove that enough improper registrations took place that the judge would be obligated to declare the election invalid.
“As a result [of registration errors] during the election, thousands of people voted that shouldn’t have voted, and people had votes cast for them that didn’t even know they were registered,” he said. “If there were illegal votes cast, and the registrar made errors, then [an election] contest is proper.”
Farr’s legal team countered, saying the notion that voters’ ballots should be thrown out because their registration cards were late or lacked a volunteer’s signature was “absurd.”
Attorney Fred Woocher said that, contrary to Lake’s legal argument, the outcome of the election was not affected by the failure of registration drive volunteers to meet a three-day deadline to submit cards to the registrar’s office.
“Council keeps referring to the rules as ‘preserving the integrity of the election process,'” Woocher said. “But how is the election affected by whether [registration volunteers] turn in the cards in three days or four? It does nothing to affect the authenticity of the card.”
Woocher said that the legal language of the “Box 12 rule” – the rule that says registration drive workers must sign cards – did not support Lake’s allegation that failure to complete this portion of the card justified invalidating votes. Rather, he called such readings of the legal code “abused and misused.”
“The legislature made it clear that the failure to comply with this section will not invalidate the ballot of the voter,” Woocher said.
Furthermore, Woocher defended the actions of the voter registration drives on and around campus that Lake has been targeting as the source of many of the registration problems.
“Far from this being a nasty procedure, [registration drives are] a process that the legislature wanted to encourage,” he said, citing the 2003 Student Registration Act.
Justice McLafferty agreed, and approved Farr’s motion to dismiss evidence of three-day deadline and Box 12 violations as irrelevant. He said that he did not wish to waste the court’s time during the trial debating registration technicalities, and looked forward to seeing what other evidence Pappas’ team would use to present their case for widespread voter fraud.
“If you can show any other evidence, I’d be happy to see that,” McLafferty told Pappas’ council.
Lake was vague about exactly what evidence he would be presenting, but said that his team would be compiling lists of the total violations that occurred, and would bring in a statistician to provide a statistical basis on which the judge could decide how many votes should be thrown out.
“You can either ask people [one by one, before the court] who they voted for, or you can do a statistical analysis,” Lake said, explaining the need for this method.
If the judge sides with Pappas in next week’s trial and invalidates a portion of the 9,700 votes cast by newly registered UCSB and Isla Vista citizens, votes would be removed from both Farr’s and Pappas’ columns based on voter percentages in that precinct. In order to overcome his 806-vote deficit, Lake will have to prove that at least 3,000 or so votes were invalid.
Although his case has certainly taken a hit with this most recent ruling, Lake charged that he still has significant evidence that would surprise the judge during the trial. When Justice McLafferty said he would prefer paper, rather than digital, lists of evidence, Lake warned that such documents would take the form of “many bankers boxes” worth of material.
“This entire case lies on whether the process was followed or not followed,” Lake said. “I know you’re skeptical, but it’s going to be incredible when you see what happened out [in I.V. and UCSB],” Lake told the judge.
Woocher said, finally, that he had yet to see any real evidence of voter fraud from the prosecution. He said that although Lake had presented newspapers with documentary evidence, he had declined to show any such evidence of voter fraud to County Clerk Joseph Holland, who was told by Lake that he would have to wait until the trial.
“We can’t for the life of us tell where this moving target is going,” he said of Lake’s legal arguments about individual registration card flaws. Later, Woocher concluded, “We’ll see what the evidence is; I’m skeptical.”
The trial date is set for a week from today, on Feb. 17.