jeff_clemens.jpgmack__bernard_4.jpgTALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ A three-judge panel Thursday sharply questioned the lawyer for a candidate appealing a 17-vote loss in the Aug. 14 Democratic primary election for a Florida Senate seat in Palm Beach County.

State Rep. Jeff Clemens edged fellow House member Mack Bernard, who challenged the county canvassing board's refusal to count 40 absentee ballots because they contained voter signatures that did not match those on record with the supervisor of elections.

The 1st District Court of Appeal judges were skeptical of Bernard's claim that a Tallahassee trial judge should have looked beyond the signatures before upholding the canvassing board.

The judges pointed out that state law says courts must limit their review to a comparison of signatures.

“It looks like you want the trial judge to compare all kinds of things,'' District Judge Nikki Ann Clark told J.C. Planas, Bernard's lawyer. She also said Circuit Judge Terry Lewis described the signatures as “not even close'' and “very different.''

District Judge Simone Marstiller later told Planas, “There's nothing else the statute appears to permit the court to look at.''

Planas argued the law was intended to protect voters' rights first with the secondary purpose of preventing fraud. He contended judges should look at the entire ballot and on-file record to ensure voters are not disenfranchised.

The panel did not immediately rule, but Clemens, of Lake Worth, was pleased with the argument. Bernard, of Delray Beach, did not attend.

“I've looked at those 40 ballots and the signatures don't match, and many of them were fraudulently signed,'' Clemens said. “So, I can't envision a scenario in which a court would allow them to come in and count ballots that are clearly fraudulent.''

Planas, a former lawmaker and a Republican, said he still had hope.

“I think a judge's job is to be skeptical of all arguments especially when they are looking at a statute,'' Planas said. “My client understands that. We just believe the statute says if the canvassing board is to err it should be on the side of the voter.''

Regardless of how the case is resolved, Democrats are virtually assured of winning District 27 because the only general election opposition is from a write-in candidate.

The oral argument came on the heels of another South Florida election case decision that went against Planas.

Chief Circuit Judge Charles Francis, also in Tallahassee, Wednesday rejected a challenge by another Planas client, Rep. John Patrick Julien, to his 13-vote loss to a fellow House member, Barbara Watson, in another Democratic primary. Both were seeking re-election after redistricting put them in the Miami-Dade County's new District 107.

In that case, Francis ruled Julien failed to present evidence of fraudulent absentee ballots that he blamed for his defeat.