Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Serious Questions should be raised on how votes are counted



Joe Courtney (left), Rob Simmons (right), Hartford Courant photo



Rob Simmons walks with President H. W. Bush



Rob Simmons, Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell


POLITICS
In 2nd, Battle Of Give, Take Courtney Maintains Slim Lead Over Simmons
November 14, 2006 By DANIELA ALTIMARI, And CHRISTOPHER KEATING Hartford Courant Staff Writers

The roller coaster recount in the 2nd Congressional District took a sharp turn Monday afternoon when officials in one small eastern Connecticut town discovered an error that had given Democrat Joe Courtney 100 extra votes.

By nightfall, though, Courtney had gained back 40 of those votes due to the discovery of another error in another small town that had inflated the vote totals of his opponent, Republican incumbent Rob Simmons.

Later the same evening, a computation error in yet a third town gave Republicans an additional 31 votes, according to the state party chairman.

The stomach-churning ride is expected to screech to a halt late tonight, when every community in the sprawling, 65-town district will have completed its mandated recount. By law, the municipalities have until midnight Wednesday to report their revised tallies to the secretary of the state's office, but 56 had completed the process by Monday night and the final nine will do so today.

As of late Monday, Courtney, a lawyer from Vernon, continued to hold a narrow lead over Simmons, a three-term incumbent from Stonington. That margin stood at 82 votes, according to State GOP Chairman George Gallo after Simmons picked up 31 votes in Waterford. On election night, preliminary results gave Courtney a 167-vote advantage, but the margin was tiny enough to trigger a recount.

Lawyers and political operatives from both parties blanketed the district, which stretches from Enfield to Madison, Stonington to Thompson. There were scattered reports of glitches in Norwich, including the discovery of an unopened envelope containing a vote for Simmons.

"People have been dispatched to every corner of the 65 towns," said Patrick O'Neil, a longtime state GOP hand who was headed to Killingworth to monitor the recount.

"They're all battlegrounds. It's hand-to-hand" combat.

Meanwhile, the two combatants remained in Washington, far from the fray.

Courtney attended a daylong orientation session for new members of Congress, which included a briefing on staffing the office and a discussion on decorum on the House floor. It also featured meet-and-greets with such Capitol Hill power brokers as presumptive Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and John Murtha, her choice for House majority leader, as well as a bipartisan reception at the White House with President Bush.

"The 2nd District is always an exciting and hard-fought race," said Brian Farber, Courtney's spokesman.

"He's confident in the win and excited to be in Washington. He's ... looking forward to taking a seat in the 110th Congress."

Simmons spent the day tending to legislative business as the lame-duck Congress was trying to tie up loose ends. "He's still a member of Congress," said his spokesman, John Goodwin.

Throughout the day, as dozens of towns in the sprawling district retallied their votes, the results shifted, with each candidate picking up or losing a few votes. The biggest swing came in Lebanon, where officials discovered that Courtney had erroneously received 100 extra votes.

Lebanon Town Clerk Susan Coutu attributed the mix-up to "human error."

An election moderator misread one of the numbers on a voting machine, she said.

"One hundred votes is a lot for anyone to lose or gain," Coutu said.

"We all apologize for any agita it's caused anyone. ... It's an embarrassing situation, but it happens."

In Lyme, where officials erroneously gave Simmons 40 extra votes, officials were similarly red-faced. Town clerk Ruth Perry was quick to confess.

"I'm the guilty party," she said Monday night, after the error had been discovered. Perry said she misheard the totals from one of the voting machines and wrote down the wrong tally.

"I feel terrible. I'm going to own up to it; I did it."

Of the 10 congressional races across the nation that remain unresolved a week after Election Day, the Simmons-Courtney contest is among the tightest.

Then again, this is a district that has a history of putting politicians through the wringer. In 2000, Simmons won a nail-biter against Democrat Sam Gejdenson, a 10-term incumbent. But even that pales next to the marathon, 1994 battle, when Gejdenson beat Republican Edward Munster by 21 votes. It took recounts, a court ruling and an appeal to Congress before Munster dropped his challenge.

After a grueling campaign that should have ended last week, Simmons' campaign manager Christopher Healy said Monday that his side is not giving up.

"The bottom line is we're still standing," Healy said.

"It's like being on death row and having the three Marx Brothers there. One tells you you're off death row, and then the next tells you you're back on death row."

And the third one says `Say the secret word and you're really off death row.'"

Contact Daniela Altimari at altimari@courant.com

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