Santa Barbara County 3rd District Supervisor Doreen Farr no longer has to worry about holding onto her title.
Farr prevailed in a contest of her November 4 election by challenger Steve Pappas in court Monday. The election contest was filed more than two months ago, with Pappas’s team alleging widespread fraud during the voter registration process and a failure by the County Registrar’s office to find many errors in 18 precincts that include voters in Isla Vista and UCSB.
But after several days of testimony over the course of weeks, Pappas’s San Diego-based attorney Jeffrey Lake failed to present any evidence to suggest there was any wrongdoing. Pappas, of course, could file an appeal – an option he said he will discuss with his attorney. But his experience in court over the last few weeks couldn’t be classified as anything close to positive, as each of his arguments were eventually shot down by Judge William McLafferty.
After losing the November election by 806 votes out of a total of more than 35,000, Pappas spent several days in December reviewing registration cards and ballots with the Sacramento law firm of Bell, McAndrews and Hiltachk, LLP. He eventually asked for a formal recount, which gave one more vote to Pappas.
While Bell, McAndrews and Hiltachk is well known for being a strong campaign, election and administrative law, and litigation firm, the firm parted ways with Pappas following the recount, and the two-time supervisorial loser found representation in Lake, who himself had run for a City Council seat in a suburban San Diego town in 2004.
With heavy funding coming largely from Nancy Crawford-Hall – rancher and owner of the Santa Ynez Valley Journal – Pappas filed suit on New Year’s Eve, alleging widespread fraud. In his contest of the election, Pappas noted the disparity between the strong support he perceived he had in the Isla Vista and UCSB and his eventual loss by 3,057 votes.
When the case finally hit the courtroom in February, McLafferty threw out two of Pappas’s main arguments before the trial could even get underway. McLafferty indicated he wouldn’t hear evidence attempting to invalidate voter registration cards collected by a third party and not submitted to the elections office within a three-day deadline. He also said he wouldn’t consider evidence that any third-party registration gatherers might have failed to appropriately fill out a required box. The point, he said, wasn’t to exclude voters on a technicality, especially when it wasn’t the voters’ fault to begin with. The decision instantly eliminated thousands of the ballots from Pappas’s challenge.
In the trial days that followed, County Registrar Joe Holland and various staff members sat on the witness stand to explain procedures in checking voter registration cards. Outlining practices required by the 2002 Help America Vote Act, Holland and company explained how voter registration information was run through a system called the Cal Validator.
While one of Pappas’s initial beefs was that perhaps thousands of registrant names weren’t being run through identity validating, his argument eventually evolved to one where he claimed the elections staff didn’t check the system’s results properly. However, Farr attorney Fred Woocher said that even if there was a potential issue – such as voters not including valid driver’s license numbers or the last four digits of their social security number – they still could have become registered as long as other necessary steps were taken.
Toward the beginning of last week, Farr’s attorneys filed a motion asking that leaders of a campus registration drive not have to testify, and that Farr herself not have to take the stand, because it would be a waste of time and because Pappas himself had said she wasn’t at fault, but that the suit only named Farr as a defendant as a result of the way the law was set up.
But as the trial continued, and prior to McLafferty hearing arguments on that motion, Lake attempted to show the judge examples of fraud by finally calling to the stand Thursday a 19-year-old Santa Barbara City College student who said she believed someone else filled out a registration card on her behalf. After some questioning from Lake, the judge butted in, asking the student if she ultimately had a chance to vote, and as far as she knew, if her vote had counted. She replied in the affirmative to each.
That was enough for McLafferty, who called the lawyers to a meeting in his chambers. When the three emerged, no more testimony was heard. And instead of the defense’s initial motion being heard Monday, a separate motion – essentially a motion to dismiss – was filed. In it, Farr attorney Fred Woocher quoted William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, saying the election contest from the beginning had been “a tale : of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Lake, who oddly enough told the judge at one point he didn’t believe it was his client’s burden to bring in examples of fraud, attempted – but failed – to convince the judge that there was actual evidence to show mistakes by election workers through the validating process, and that those votes should be discounted. But McLafferty came down hard against Pappas, and in effect, shut down his case.
The Help America Vote Act was intended to help people to vote, McLafferty said, not to exclude voters. “People want the right to vote,” said the judge, who throughout the proceedings never seemed to express much confidence in Lake’s contentions. “We have to do everything we can to make sure their vote counts.”
Holland, as he had contended from day one, said he was confident during the entire process that his staff had done their jobs correctly. “Nothing here surprised me,” Holland said. “It was just a matter of time.” McLafferty went out of his way to laud Holland and staff for a job well done, telling them he was “very proud” of them for sitting on the stand and taking “harassment” from Lake’s questioning. “I didn’t see any examples of bad form or bad conduct or bad motives,” McLafferty said.
After the hearing, Woocher had strong words for Pappas and his attorneys. “This case was a travesty from beginning to end,” Woocher said, adding he intends to pursue legal fees if possible. “Steve Pappas owes a lot of apologies.”
But Pappas didn’t apologize, explaining he was just happy for the opportunity to get out the information he had seen over the past few months of review. “We did what we thought was right,” Pappas said after the hearing.