THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Race for House seat still open

Sixth Worcester District hangs on one voter’s ballot

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / November 23, 2010

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It is a scene familiar to anyone who watched the drama unfold in Florida a decade ago. High-powered lawyers are advising the candidates, local elections officials have been thrust into controversy, and battles are raging over voter intent and spoiled ballots.

OK, so the presidency does not hang in the balance, but no one in the Sixth Worcester House District is taking this recount any less seriously.

After a town-by-town hand recount, involving close scrutiny of black ovals and arguments over obscure points of election law, the district’s hotly contested race for state representative has been decided by a single vote in favor of the Republican challenger, Peter J. Durant. He has declared victory and is eager to join the burgeoning crop of House Republicans on Beacon Hill.

But the incumbent Democrat, Geraldo Alicea, is not giving up his seat without a fight. He says that local officials mistakenly discarded one vote in his favor and that the race should be declared a tie, an exceedingly rare result that would force another election. He plans to take his case to court, adding another chapter to a standoff that has gripped the political world of Central Massachusetts.

“It is tense,’’ said Durant, a selectman from Spencer whose initial four-vote lead over Alicea dwindled to one vote, following the districtwide recount last week. “It was just emotionally and physically exhausting. Especially when you have a four-vote lead, any mistake in reading those ballots could be detrimental.’’

Alicea, a second-term representative from Charlton, said that “it’s clearly been a roller coaster’’ for him, too. But he argues that the race is not over, because the recount was flawed.

“It’s important we follow through and make sure every vote is counted,’’ he said.

After the Nov. 2 election, Durant was declared the winner with 6,587 votes to 6,583 for Alicea. Alicea asked for a recount, and the district’s five towns recounted their ballots last week. All came up with the same result, except for Southbridge, which added three votes to Alicea’s count.

That should be that, said Durant. “We won this election by one vote,’’ he said.

But Alicea argues that he should get one more vote from an absentee ballot that was never counted. It was initially rejected and placed in an envelope with spoiled ballots on Nov. 2 because the voter marked two choices for governor, said Madaline Daoust, town clerk in Southbridge.

During the recount, officials noticed that the voter also bubbled in the oval for Alicea, and Alicea wanted the vote added to his tally. But he was overruled, when two Republicans on the Southbridge election board voted down the lone Democrat, 2-1, to discard the ballot.

James Dyer, a Republican member of that board, said he did not feel comfortable counting the ballot without a firmer understanding of election law.

“Not being versed in the law, I didn’t feel comfortable making a hasty decision in handling this, understanding how close this situation is,’’ said Dyer, who described himself as a stay-at-home father.

Daoust and Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s top elections official, said absentee ballots cannot technically be spoiled, an assertion that bolsters Alicea’s case.

“I don’t think there’s any dispute it’s an Alicea vote,’’ Galvin, a Democrat, said yesterday, adding that the decision is not his to make. “It’s up to a court,’’ he said.

Durant’s lawyer, former US attorney Frank McNamara, said he is not convinced that the vote should be counted.

He said there were a number of irregularities in the handling of the ballot, including a break in one of the two seals on the box that transported the ballot.

“The provenance of that ballot is a matter of conjecture, of speculation,’’ McNamara said. “I don’t know the chain of custody of that ballot. . . . It is far too speculative now to assume that ballot will be counted or should be counted.’’

William A. McDermott, a veteran election lawyer from Boston who is representing Alicea, declined to comment yesterday.

No matter who wins, the battle underscores a simple truth that both sides can agree on, Alicea said.

“People are realizing even more how important every vote is,’’ he said “Many people have been apologizing for not coming out for me because they thought it was an automatic win.’’

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.