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Recount tightens; ruling due Monday

Judge overrules registrar on 4 ballots cast in the O.C. supervisorial race, cutting the margin to 3.

March 24, 2007|Mike Anton | Times Staff Writer

A judge on Friday overturned the Orange County registrar of voters' decision on four recounted ballots cast in a February Board of Supervisors race, leaving Janet Nguyen just three votes ahead of opponent Trung Nguyen.

Superior Court Judge Hugh Michael Brenner's rulings put to rest one of the two main arguments in Trung Nguyen's attempt to invalidate the recount, which overturned his Feb. 3 election-day victory.

On Monday, Brenner will take up the contention that the recount was never completed because a paper trail audit of the electronic vote wasn't counted manually.

Brenner said he would also hand down a ruling on the recount, a decision that -- after weeks of fighting and posturing -- should result in the seating of a new supervisor for the central county district.

On Friday, Brenner considered 32 absentee ballots with extraneous writing, drawings or other markings that Trung Nguyen sought to have changed in his favor: Some were votes for him that Registrar Neal Kelley disallowed; others were votes for Janet Nguyen that Trung Nguyen's attorneys argued Kelley should have thrown out.

"It's very hard to guess the intent of the voter in all these odd markings," said Brenner, referring to the variety of squiggles, mark-outs and messages on the ballots. But, he said, "you have to draw the line somewhere."

After listening to a barrage of nuanced legal arguments and case law citations from attorneys for the candidates and the registrar, Brenner said he intended to rule on each ballot with consistency in mind.

"If the mark appears to be part of a voter's attempting to vote, then the ballot is counted," he said. But if a mark was intentional and identified a ballot in a unique way other than that, it was thrown out.

Among the ballots were some with initials on them, one with the word "powerball" next to a series of lottery numbers and another with an intricate drawing of a flower in the margin.

"Somebody spent a lot of time drawing that flower with a desire to identify that ballot," Brenner said in upholding Kelley's decision to throw out the vote for Trung Nguyen. "It has nothing to do with the vote."

Earlier this month, supervisors agreed to wait until their meeting Tuesday to swear in a new 1st District member, allowing the court to decide which of the two Republicans, who aren't related, won.

"I guarantee you," Brenner told attorneys Friday, "that you will go home Monday with the court's decision."

mike.anton@latimes.com

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