FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A former Republican lawmaker in Kentucky who lost his state House seat by one vote in November could get a second chance thanks to the state's GOP majority.
A board of nine state lawmakers voted 6-3 Wednesday to recount the votes in Kentucky House District 13. All six Republicans on the panel voted for the recount, while three Democrats voted "no."
Johnson got 6,318 votes on Election Day, but Democrat Jim Glenn got 6,319 votes. In some states, an outcome that close would trigger an automatic recount. But in Kentucky, a state law says candidates in state legislative races can appeal to the House of Representatives. That means a Republican-dominated chamber could decide if a Democrat can keep his seat.
"The full House is the final arbiter of who wins an election in the House and who is a member of the House," said Republican state Rep. Jason Petrie, the chairman of the legislative panel that ordered the recount.
Democrats condemned the decision, with House Minority Floor Leader Rocky Adkins saying it "sets a terrible precedent." Glenn, who attended Wednesday's hearing, said it may cause voters to "question the election process altogether."
"I watch Chicago Bears play football. They lost 16 to 15. They didn't replay the game. The game's over," Glenn said.
Johnson contested the election in November. Earlier this month, the House of Representatives appointed a nine-member board to hear the contest. Members were selected by a random drawing of the House clerk, resulting in six Republicans and three Democrats. Republicans control 61 of the 100 House seats.
The board will issue a report but the final decision on who gets the seat is up to the House of Representatives.
Meanwhile, Glenn has been sworn in and assigned to legislative committees.
Kentucky law requires the loser of an election contest to pay for it. Glenn's attorney, Anna Whites, estimated a recount would cost as much as $40,000. Glenn told the board Wednesday he could not afford that.
"My wife died of cancer. I ate through $4,000 a week trying to keep her alive," Glenn said.
Johnson, who didn't attend the hearing, agreed through his lawyer that he would pay for the cost of the recount regardless of the outcome. Previously, Johnson has said the state Republican Party was helping him pay for his legal expenses.
"I don't anticipate that being a problem," Johnson said by phone Wednesday.
The winner could be decided by 17 unopened absentee ballots. On election day, those ballots were unanimously rejected by the Daviess County Board of Elections, which includes Republicans and Democrats.
Johnson's lawyer, Cory Skolnick, said those ballots should be opened and counted. Most were rejected because the ballots were missing a signature or mailed in the incorrect envelope. Skolnick noted at least six people voted in person that day without signing the precinct voting roster as required by state law. If those votes were counted, Skolnick said, these absentee ballots should be counted, too.
Johnson's lawyer, Anna Whites, rejected that argument. Voting in person is different than voting by mail, she said, because election workers can see you. She said absentee voting rules are needed to prevent fraud.
"This is not, 'Let's count every vote,'" Whites said. "This is, 'Let's recognize every valid vote has already been counted.'"
In ordering the recount, the board did not direct local election officials to open and count the disputed absentee ballots. But those ballots will be reviewed a second time by the local election board. Whether they are counted "will be their determination," Petrie said.
Complicating the issue, Petrie ordered a Kentucky State Police officer to retrieve the unopened absentee ballots earlier this month from a locked box in the Daviess County Clerk's office. The officer put the ballots in a safe in the House Clerk's office.
Whites argued it is impossible to tell if those ballots have not been altered. But the officer who moved the ballots told lawmakers they haven't been opened or changed.