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Ballot Count to Resume, Judge Rules : Election: Feinstein stretches her margin over Huffington as absentee votes are tallied. Harman overtakes Brooks in congressional race and Kuykendall pulls ahead of Karnette in crucial Assembly contest, but both remain too close to call.


Rejecting Republican charges of widespread voter fraud, a Superior Court judge Monday ordered absentee ballot counting resumed in Los Angeles County, as U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein widened her lead over challenger Mike Huffington.

That action also came as a Republican pulled ahead in a crucial legislative race that would give the GOP control of the state Assembly for the first time in 25 years. And a Democratic congresswoman took her first lead in an effort to retain her seat representing the South Bay.

Judge Robert O'Brien ordered the tally of absentee ballots resumed two days after Republican Party activist Allen Brandstater persuaded another judge to temporarily halt the count, claiming that illegal immigrants, children and even a dog had been registered to vote.

The lawyer who led the effort to halt the vote tally argued that current ballot counting techniques do not allow authorities to determine how fraudulent absentee voting affects the outcome of elections. Stephen Fleishman told O'Brien that information might later be needed to help the U.S. Senate determine the winner of the Senate contest, should the dispute reach that level.

But O'Brien headed off the possibility--at least temporarily--that the Senate, where the GOP will take control Jan. 1, would have any say in the close race between Democrat Feinstein and Republican Huffington.

O'Brien ruled in a terse order that Brandstater "failed to provide sufficient evidence to warrant deviating from the established statutory election process." But some Republicans said they might continue to press their legal challenge.

Feinstein's camp charged that the attack on the vote-counting procedures was orchestrated by Huffington out of "desperation"--a charge denied by Huffington aides, despite ties between those mounting the legal challenge and the Huffington campaign.

With tabulation of nearly 100,000 Los Angeles County absentee votes added to the statewide vote totals Monday, Feinstein had stretched her margin to 132,540--nearly 9,000 votes more than on Election Day.

In Orange County, Registrar Donald Tanney rejected only 30 of the county's 48,000 absentee absentee ballots Monday. The ballots, which were part of 300 ballots challenged by Huffington and Feinstein camps, had voter signatures missing or just were "too far from the signatures we had on file to determine it was the same person," Tanney said.

Tanney made his ruling with attorneys from both political camps in attendance, he said.

"These 30 ballots are not just thrown away, but locked up and kept for 22 months," Tanney explained. "If this issue goes to court and if the court asks, then I can tell them my reasons for rejecting them."

In Orange County, Huffington swept the Senate race with 59% of the vote to 32% for Feinstein.

Statewide, the tally for absentee ballots is crucial. Tanney said his office completed signature verification of the absentee ballots, which will be counted Wednesday.

"Hopefully, we will have the 48,000 counted by Wednesday evening," Tanney said. "We plan to have the election declared official by next week."

Another 3,500 ballots, classified as "provisional" still must be counted, Tanney said.

Provisional absentee ballots are those sent to voters who instead decide to vote at a polling place, he said. "We have to make sure the person doesn't vote twice," he said.

The new ballots in Los Angeles County helped reverse, for now, the election night result in the race for the state Assembly seat currently held by Betty Karnette (D-Long Beach). Her 64-vote lead was turned into a 476-vote advantage for challenger Steve Kuykendall, a Rancho Palos Verdes Republican, in a race that could help give the GOP control of the Assembly.

The newly tabulated votes also helped push Rep. Jane Harman (D-Rolling Hills) to a narrow 260-vote lead over Republican Susan Brooks, reversing the 93-vote lead that Brooks had after election night. Harman's advantage came as something of a surprise, since she trailed the Republican challenger in absentee ballots that were counted on election night.

None of the election results, however, were final. More than 500,000 votes statewide, including 120,000 from Los Angeles County, remain to be tallied. Election officials said they hope to have another update later this week and to complete all tabulation by next week.

Feinstein's lead seemed to be safe, given the trend of absentee ballots in her favor. Huffington would need about 62% of the remaining ballots to make up the difference. The two other races remained too close to call.

The focus of all three races shifted Monday morning from the registrars' counting rooms around the state to O'Brien's courtroom in Downtown Los Angeles, where representatives of several candidates gathered to monitor the proceedings.

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