A judge on Friday dismissed a lawsuit challenging Putnam County Sheriff Homer “Gator” DeLoach’s election last fall in a race that came down to 16 votes.
Clay County-based Circuit Judge Gary Wilkinson upheld the election, concluding that it reflected the will of the voters. He said challenger Jonathan Kinney did not prove a number of controversial ballots were sufficient to sway, or cast doubt on, the result.
The 21-page ruling comes after a little more than five weeks of deliberation. The case went to trial April 12 where Kinney’s attorneys questioned the legitimacy of 42 ballots they contended were cast by ineligible voters, including felons and dead people.
The trial capped a five-month legal saga that began in November. Kinney filed an election contest lawsuit after losing to DeLoach following several recounts, initially citing allegations of mishandled ballots and misconduct by elections officials during the vote-counting process.
“It is uncontroverted that each of the 42 voters at issue in this lawsuit were registered voters in the statewide system at the time they voted in the general election,” Wilkinson wrote in his decision. “… Thus, based on the information available to the supervisor’s office and the canvassing board on election day, each of the 42 votes at issue in this proceeding appeared to be legal.”
Wilkinson’s ruling held that there was no way of knowing if most of those 42 voters actually voted in that race due to Florida’s secret ballot and 700-plus undervotes, meaning people who voted but not for sheriff. Besides, he added, how they voted remains unknown because of the secret ballot. Evidence presented at trial indicated one of those 42 votes went to DeLoach.
At the time of the trial, 10 of the 42 were determined to be ineligible felons and were removed from the rolls. A Putnam County elections official told the Times-Union Monday that the number of removed voters had grown to 20, including more felons in addition to three dead voters and a man deemed mentally incompetent.
It’s unclear if Kinney’s legal team intends to appeal the ruling. Kinney could not be reached for comment Friday.
“We want to take time to thoroughly evaluate the legal analysis contained in the judge’s order, so we will decline to make further comment at this time,” Kinney’s attorney, Zach Keller, wrote in a text message.
The election has been controversial since the outset. It was too close to call on election night when unofficial returns had Kinney ahead by 18 votes out of nearly 33,000 ballots cast. The narrow margin triggered a mandatory recount, which is required when unofficial returns have a candidate for office winning or losing by 0.5 percent or less of the total ballots cast.
Then before multiple recounts took place, elections officials disclosed that nearly 430 ballots were not reported in the initial tally. Once they were added and the recounts complete, the results had pulled an apparent 180-degree turn. The county canvassing board ultimately certified DeLoach the winner by 16 votes.
In response, Kinney sued on the grounds that the canvassing board mishandled ballots and skirted the Sunshine Law while votes were being counted, and fought unsuccessfully in court to block DeLoach from taking office. The suit named DeLoach and the canvassing board consisting of Supervisor of Elections Charles Overturf, Judge Elizabeth Morris and Nancy Harris as defendants.
Overturf said he was relieved by the judge’s decision, though he acknowledged the saga may not be over just yet. “Mr. Kinney has the right to appeal,” he said.
Reached by phone Friday, DeLoach said the judge’s decision gives him peace of mind going forward after months of legal back-and-forth.
“This election contest was always something that was in the back of my mind, but my primary concern was always on doing the best job I could as sheriff of Putnam County,” he said. “I believe that’s what the voters demand and what my deputies and employees deserve.”
Garrett Pelican: (904) 359-4385