Republican congressional candidate Mia Love talks with reporters during the Utah State GOP election night watch party Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Utah judge rejects US Rep. Mia Love’s bid to stop vote count

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Utah judge on Friday rejected a bid by Republican U.S. Rep. Mia Love to halt vote counting in a Democratic-leaning county that’s key to the outcome of a House race so tight it’s nearing the threshold for a recount.

Judge James Gardner’s decision ensures the vote tally will continue and comes a day after a court hearing on the lawsuit Love filed Wednesday. Democratic challenger Ben McAdams leads Love, the first black Republican woman elected to Congress, by about 1,000 votes, with more results expected to be released later in the day.

The Love campaign argued it must have a path to challenge voter signatures on mail-in ballots if they didn’t seem to match those on file in Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County.

But the county says there’s no law giving candidates that right and allowing the challenge could mean violating voters’ private ballots in a state where voting is done primarily by mail.

Gardner said in his written ruling that Love’s campaign failed to show that any law or statute allowed it to intervene in the vote counting or that he should halt the count.

“Instead the Love parties effectively ask the court to create expansive new rights for campaign involvement in ballot processing,” Gardner wrote.

He added, “Neither a poll watcher nor a candidate enjoys a statutory right to challenge, override or redo the type of work by an election official at issue in this case.”

The judge criticized the Love campaign for waiting so long after last week’s election to bring the lawsuit, saying it “effectively destroyed” his ability to grant the relief the campaign wanted. He suggested Love ask state lawmakers if she wants new rights for candidates.

An attorney for the Love campaign, Robert Harrington, said it would “continue to closely observe the integrity of this election process.”

“Although we disagree with the outcome, we appreciate the court’s attention to the issues raised in our petition,” Harrington said in statement.

He argued in the hearing Thursday that the county was violating election law by sending letters to voters to confirm their identities. The county wasn’t fully confirming the person returning the letter 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 and similar to those used in other counties.

About 2,500 ballots as of Thursday awaited that additional layer of verification before they could be counted, though it’s unclear how many of those people voted in the House race. In such a close contest, those ballots could affect the outcome.

McAdams’ campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, praised the decision, saying, “We are happy to see that no 4th District voters will be disenfranchised.”

Love’s campaign claims poll monitors had seen a few instances of voter signatures on ballots accepted by election workers that appeared not to match those on file. Her attorneys argued they needed a process to formally challenge those ballots under voter eligibility rules and have them set aside until they could be reconciled.

Swenson, the county clerk and Democrat, said Love’s campaign staff was granted access to observe the tallies but is not allowed to participate in the signature verification process. She said allowing signature challenges could lead to poll watchers from opposing campaigns fighting over their validity, creating “a tug of war of chaos.”

The dispute comes in a county where McAdams is the mayor and where 85 percent of voters in the district live in the suburbs of Salt Lake City. Love’s stronghold is in Republican-leaning Utah County.