Judge weighs arguments in GOP Rep. Love’s vote-halt lawsuit

November 16, 2018
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Republican U.S. Rep. Mia Love walks to greets supporters during an election night party Tuesday Nov. 6, 2018, in Lehi, Utah. Love is expected to face a stiff challenge from Democrat Ben McAdams in the state's 4th congressional district. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah judge was weighing a lawsuit Thursday that could halt some vote-counting in the race where Republican U.S. Rep. Mia Love is trailing her Democratic challenger by a razor-thin margin. He did not immediately rule.

Judge James Gardner questioned why Love’s attorneys had waited more than a week after Election Day to file the lawsuit against Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County over signatures on mail-in ballots. “You’re at the 11th hour,” Gardner said.

An attorney for the Love campaign, Robert Harrington, said he’d hoped to file it earlier but “things are happening very quickly. We have limited resources.”

Democrat Ben McAdams, though, said his GOP opponent was unfairly singling out the ballots in Salt Lake County, where voters are less likely to support her. He is now leading by about 1,000 votes.

“This is a thinly veiled attempt to disenfranchise the voters of Salt Lake County,” said campaign manager Andrew Roberts.

Utah voting is done primarily by mail, and Love supporters on Thursday zeroed in on the way the county verifies mail-in ballots if the voter’s signature doesn’t match the one on file.

Harrington argued the county is violating election law with the letters it sends to voters to confirm their identity. They don’t fully confirm the person returning them is the voter and cast a ballot in the election, he said.

But attorneys for Salt Lake County Clerk Sherrie Swenson said the letters are valid under state law, and very similar to those used in other counties.

There are about 2,500 ballots that are awaiting that additional layer of verification before they can be counted, though it’s unclear exactly how many of those people voted in the Love-McAdams race. In such a close race, those ballots could affect the outcome.

Love’s campaign has also argued it must have an opportunity to challenge voter signatures on mail-in ballots. The focus of their lawsuit, though, shifted after Salt Lake County argued there was nothing in the law allowing such a challenge.

Swenson said campaigns are allowed to watch the vote count, but can’t be interactive participants. Allowing signature challenges could lead to poll watchers from opposing campaigns fighting over their validity, she said.

“It would become a tug of war of chaos,” said Swenson, a Democrat.

McAdams is now the mayor of Salt Lake County, where 85 percent of voters in the district live in the suburbs of the state’s capital. Love’s stronghold is in Republican-leaning Utah County.

He gained the edge on Election Day, but the outcome was too close to call. President Donald Trump nevertheless called out Love by name in a news conference where he bashed some fellow Republicans, claiming she and others lost because they didn’t fully embrace him.

There is a 0.25-percent threshold where candidates can request a recount, and the current results are flirting with that possibility/

Love, who became the first black Republican woman elected to Congress in 2014, had distanced herself from Trump’s stance on issues like immigration.

McAdams, meanwhile, has positioned himself as a solid moderate who could work with the president.