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Dispute Leaves Alabama Governor's Race Hanging

Twin counts from one county put outcome on hold. Both candidates have refused to concede.

November 08, 2002|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — You don't need chads to keep an election hanging. Ask the two men claiming to be Alabama's next governor.

Two days after balloting resulted in a paper-thin margin, a disputed vote count from a single county in southern Alabama has spurred competing claims of victory by incumbent Gov. Donald Siegelman, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Bob Riley.

The final tally gave Riley the slimmest of triumphs -- 3,195 votes across a state in which 1.3 million ballots were cast. But Siegelman was sticking with an early count that gave him a similarly narrow advantage.

By Thursday morning, each candidate was behaving as if he had won. Siegelman kept up his gubernatorial duties, traveling to Henry County, on the Georgia line, to tour the site of a tornado that killed at least one person. Riley, meanwhile, set about organizing a team to steer his transition to power. At his campaign office, staffers asserted victory in the way they answered the phone: "Gov. Riley's office."

Siegelman proposed a statewide recount, saying the tight results demanded it, no matter which candidate was ahead. He said the tiny margin -- two-tenths of a percentage point -- was small enough to have triggered automatic recounts in 12 states. Siegelman said ballots across the state should be recounted by hand.

"This is not about Bob Riley or Don Siegelman. It's about the people of Alabama, it's about the people's right to know that their vote has been fairly counted. It's about their right to be heard," Siegelman said in a statement.

Riley's campaign staff did not return calls seeking comment.

The controversy centered on Baldwin County, a Republican redoubt on Alabama's coastal nub, where a tally on election night showed Siegelman with 19,070 votes -- enough to put him over the top statewide. That result was reported and an ecstatic Siegelman declared victory shortly after midnight.

But a subsequent tally, described by Baldwin County election officials as the final accounting of its precincts, showed Siegelman with 12,736 votes, a shift that suddenly gave the edge to Riley, whose 31,052 votes countywide were unchanged.

County election officials said the first count, showing a higher tally for Siegelman, was wrong. The later tally giving him 6,334 fewer votes, is "accurate and supportable and defendable," Baldwin County Probate Judge Adrian Johns, the election overseer, told reporters. Under the count favorable to Siegelman, there would have been more votes for governor in Baldwin County than total ballots cast.

The recount call added a new twist to the swirling drama -- intrigue that grew after Siegelman called reporters to his office Wednesday for an announcement, then abruptly canceled without explanation. There was speculation about legal challenges -- and comparisons to a more infamous election fiasco.

"Both sides are claiming victory. We don't know who our next governor's going to be. It's similar to what happened two years ago in the president's race," said Greg Heyman, spokesman for the secretary of state's office in Montgomery.

Counties must report official results by noon today. Then, any registered voter can ask a county to recount, provided they post a bond to pay for it, a cost of $750 to $5,000, depending on how large the recount. (The bond is returned if the first count was wrong.) Results are official statewide Nov. 20.

Results could be contested before the state Legislature.

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