11:33 AM PDT on Friday, July 9, 2010

By DUANE W. GANG
The Press-Enterprise

A Superior Court judge Friday ordered Riverside County elections officials to count 12,563 disputed mail-in ballots and include the results in the final tally from the June 8 primary.

County officials began counting the votes shortly after Riverside County Superior Court Judge Mac R. Fisher issued his ruling and expect to complete the task by tonight.

The results could affect the outcome of at least one state Senate race where only 12 votes separate the top two finishers.

“Voting is a right that many have sacrificed lives and liberty to protect,” Fisher said Friday. “The court will not disenfranchise 12,563 voters.”

A mix-up with the U.S. Postal Service kept the ballots out of the hands of elections officials until after the polls closed Election Day — the legal deadline to count the ballots.

The Riverside County Democratic Central Committee and three Moreno Valley voters sued last week to have the ballots counted under the state Constitution. A 2002 amendment gave voters a right to have their ballots counted.

Fisher ordered Registrar of Voters Barbara Dunmore to count the ballots expeditiously in order to meet the California secretary of state’s July 16 deadline to certify the statewide results.

Many in the packed Riverside court room exclaimed, “Thank you,” and applauded after the judge issued his ruling.

“I am very happy that my vote is going to count,” said Naomi Ingram, one of the three Moreno Valley voters to file the lawsuit.

For Jennifer Christina Riegel, another plaintiff in the suit, the June 8 election was her first. She said she was upset when she learned her ballot was among those that languished uncounted.

“I really wanted mine to count,” she said.

Sherri Lynn Riegel, the third voter to join the lawsuit, said, “We are ecstatic.”

Counting nonstop

County spokesman Ray Smith said elections officials will work around the clock until they’re done counting the ballots.

As soon as the count is complete, Dunmore will certify the results and forward them to the secretary of state Monday, Smith said. According to Friday’s court ruling, elections officials have until July 15 to certify the local results.

The disputed ballots were sorted at a U.S. Postal Service facility in Moreno Valley by 8:30 a.m. on Election Day. But no one from the registrar’s office picked them up from the Moreno Valley site.

As they had done for the past 12 years, county officials retrieved ballots at the Chicago Avenue post office in Riverside twice June 8 and visited a distribution facility in Redlands in the evening to pick up ballots.

They had never gone to the Moreno Valley site before. But since officials had visited the processing facility in Redlands, the Postal Service assumed the registrar would check for ballots at the processing facility in Moreno Valley, according to statement of facts filed with the court.

When no one arrived in Moreno Valley, the ballots were loaded on a truck and taken to the Chicago Avenue post office where the registrar’s office picked them up June 9.

James Harrison, an attorney for the voters and Democratic committee, argued that the Postal Service agreed to hold mail for pick up, rather than deliver it to the registrar’s street address.

That meant the ballots were received on time and voters shouldn’t be penalized for any glitch by two governmental agencies, Harrison said.

Voters approved Prop. 43 in March 2002 and amended the state constitution to give every voter a right to have his or her ballot counted. Under that provision, the votes must be counted, Harrison said.

The county did not dispute the fact that the ballots were sorted June 8. But County Counsel Pamela Walls argued the Postal Service is not an official agent for the registrar of voters.

Nonetheless, Walls said outside of court that the county was pleased by the judge’s decision.

“We are very happy and relieved to get a decision so we can get the certification done,” Walls said.

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