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David Harmer fights Contra Costa vote count

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Posted: Wednesday, November 10, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 1:37 pm, Tue Nov 16, 2010.

The race to represent the 11th Congressional District continued Monday in four county elections offices and one courtroom as the Democratic incumbent's lead inched forward.

By Monday afternoon, Rep. Jerry McNerney's lead over Republican challenger David Harmer had reached 628 votes. The margin grew during the past week as elections offices in Alameda, Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties have updated tallies at intervals as they counted absentee ballots received on Election Day. The three counties each had more than 90,000 of the mail-in ballots to count after polls closed last week.

More than half the district's voters live in San Joaquin County, where there were 29,000 post-election absentee ballots to count. Unlike elections offices in the other three counties, San Joaquin will release the results of all the absentee ballots at once. Those are expected to be delivered by Thursday night, said Austin Erdman, the county's registrar of voters.

Representatives of both campaigns have been watching the counting closely.

Harmer's camp took Contra Costa County Clerk Steve Weir to court to challenge the largely automated signature verification process. After a judge told the parties Monday to work out their differences, the campaign and Contra Costa County reached an agreement, Weir said.

Under the arrangement, observers can get closer to the elections workers verifying signatures on the remaining 1,700 ballots, Weir said. Contra Costa County agreed to slow down the process, too, so checking a ballot envelope signature with the signature on file would take, on average, about 10 seconds, Weir said. Before the agreement, it took about four or five seconds per signature.

What hasn't changed is that observers still will not be allowed to challenge individual ballots during this process, Weir said. "They cannot, cannot, cannot challenge the voter."

Still, Harmer's observers will raise the issue every time a signature the campaign considers erroneous appears on the computer screen the elections workers use to check signatures, campaign spokeswoman Melissa Subbotin said.

"Our primary concern is the integrity of the process," Subbotin said. "Things needed to be slowed down so that every legally cast ballot is counted."

No similar challenge has been made in San Joaquin County, though Erdman said he agreed that observers are not permitted to challenge signatures during the verification process.

McNerney campaign spokeswoman Sarah Hersh declined comment on the Contra Costa County dispute other than to say the campaign was monitoring it.

Hersh said the updated returns from the later tallies on Election Day and the week after favored McNerney, who gained ground after initial results had him trailing Harmer. "We are feeling very positive," she said.

The picture will be clearer after San Joaquin County releases its updates, Subbotin said.

But the counting will continue. Once the absentee ballots are tallied, all four counties will still have about 70,000 provisional ballots to count.

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