US Rep. Mia Love loses in court, takes lead in tight race

Judge James D. Gardner hears arguments in Third District Court, Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018, in West Jordan, Utah. Gardner has reserved a decision on a lawsuit in a tight House race filed by a Republican incumbent who is seeking to halt vote counting in a Democratic-leaning county that's key to the outcome. Gardner heard arguments in the lawsuit filed by U.S. Rep Mia Love, but ended the hearing without making a ruling. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah Republican Rep. Mia Love lost a court challenge Friday to halt vote-counting in one key county, but took the lead with new vote tallies in a race so tight it’s within the recount threshold.

Love, the first black Republican woman elected to Congress, flipped the lead that Democrat Ben McAdams had held since election night to move ahead by 419 votes in a race where about 257,600 ballots have been counted so far, according to new results.

Love’s lead over McAdams, the Democratic Salt Lake County mayor, is at 0.16 percent. Under Utah law, a candidate can request a recount if the margin is 0.25 percent or tighter.

The majority of the new votes posted came from Utah County — Love’s stronghold, where she’s been leading with 74 percent of the vote.

McAdams leads in his home county of Salt Lake County, which will release more votes Monday. But his lead there has slipped since election night, allowing Love to close the gap.

McAdams’ campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, said the campaign remains optimistic he will retake the lead with the votes tallied on Monday.

Love’s campaign manager Dave Hansen said: “This is just the start of Mia’s victory. We will continue to closely monitor the election results.”

Earlier Friday, a Utah judge rejected a bid by Love to halt vote counting in Democratic-leaning Salt Lake County. The Love campaign had argued it must have a path to challenge voter signatures on mail-in ballots if they didn’t seem to match those on file.

But Judge James Gardner ruled 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.

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.

McAdams gained the edge on Election Day when he had a lead of about 3 percentage points, though the outcome was too close to call. Shortly afterward, President Donald Trump called out Love in a news conference where he bashed some fellow Republicans, saying she and others lost because they didn’t fully embrace him. He made the comments despite doubt about the outcome of the Utah vote.

A similar lawsuit was filed this week in New Mexico by a Republican who lost a bid for a U.S. House seat. A judge ruled Friday that the New Mexico secretary of state’s office can finish its tally and work on an agreement with the candidate on how to inspect certain ballots.

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