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Gov. Siegelman Dealt Setback in Alabama Recount Bid

The state's Republican attorney general rules that the sealed ballots can't be opened just because the Democrat trails his challenger.

November 09, 2002|From Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Democratic Gov. Donald Siegelman's call for a statewide recount suffered a blow Friday when the Republican attorney general said sealed ballots can't be opened just because the governor trails his GOP challenger.

The opinion of Atty. Gen. Bill Pryor came as Alabama's 67 counties certified their votes, with official results showing Siegelman trailing U.S. Rep. Bob Riley by 3,117 votes. In some counties there was a change from the unofficial numbers reported Tuesday night, but not enough to change the outcome.

"You can't break the seal based on not liking the count," Pryor said in an opinion awaited by election officials statewide.

Rip Andrews, a Siegelman campaign spokesman, said, "The bottom line is it's a Republican conspiracy at its worst."

It wasn't immediately clear whether the governor would go to court to try to force a recount or take the issue before the Legislature, which doesn't convene until January.

Siegelman demanded a recount Thursday. He pointed in particular to Baldwin County, where officials reduced his tally by about 7,000 votes late Tuesday -- enough to give Riley the victory.

The county blamed a glitch in its computer system for the revision, but the first-term governor said the switch was made after poll workers left for the night.

Siegelman attorney Joe Espy accused the attorney general of ignoring state regulations that provide for a recount. "On behalf of Bob Riley, the Republican attorney general today changed the law," Espy said.

He said the governor won't give up on seeking a recount, but he hasn't decided what his next action will be.

Riley and his attorneys praised Pryor's decision. "Atty. Gen. Bill Pryor is doing constitutionally what he is supposed to do," lawyer Terry Butts said.

Alabama law does not provide for an automatic recount in tight races, but any voter can ask for one, county by county, if a bond is posted to pay for it. Democratic supporters began filing recount petitions across the state Friday, with Siegelman's campaign or the Democratic Party offering to pay for the bonds if necessary.

However, election officials were advised by Secretary of State Jim Bennett to wait for Pryor's opinion, in part to "avoid the situation that arose in Florida."

Alabama has never had a statewide recount and some of its election laws date to the 1800s.

Pryor said the governor's petitions aren't sufficient to unseal the ballots and other election records.

He said Siegelman could get the ballots opened under only two scenarios:

* He files an election contest with the Legislature and shows that illegal ballots were counted or legal ballots weren't counted and that those would change the results.

The new Legislature would consider a contest in January, when it convenes to certify the final voting results.

* He gets a judge to order a recount in a county after finding that a voting machine or precinct did not make a report on election night.

"It is a crime to break a seal without following these procedures," Pryor said. The crime is a misdemeanor.

Espy disagreed with Pryor's interpretation and said a recount is needed to settle the issue in voters' minds.

"Whatever happened, happened. Let's just count the votes," he said.

In Baldwin County, Republican Dist. Atty. David Whetstone said the ballots would remain sealed, based on Pryor's advice.

"As of right now," he said, "no one is going to recount the votes in Baldwin County."

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