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'This isn't about voter fraud': Judge explains Brighton election trial on final day

Updated: Aug. 9, 2017 at 8:02 PM CDT
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BESSEMER, AL (WBRC) - On the third and final day of trial on challenges to Brighton's mayoral election, Judge Eugene Verin addressed the parties.  "This isn't about voter fraud," he said.

Instead, Verin's focus is on whether the law was followed during the absentee voter process.  He will decide whether to set aside the results of the 2016 mayoral election. Read about the first and second days.

Eddie Cooper, the one-time Brighton mayor and candidate for the office, filed the election challenge in September 2016 against Brandon Dean, the then-24-year-old Brighton mayor-elect. Cooper's lawsuit alleges Dean can't be mayor because he's not a resident of Brighton and irregularities in the absentee ballot process necessitate the results be set aside.

Wednesday's arguments primarily focused on the absentee ballots.  For nearly an hour-and-a-half, lawyers summarized testimony taken from many of the ten witnesses and dozens of exhibits.

Patrice Blankenship, attorney for Cooper, methodically reviewed evidence she argued warranted the disqualification of 47 absentee ballots.  According to Blankenship, only 35 absentee ballots must be disqualified in order to prompt a run-off between Dean and Cooper.

She pointed to testimony from a handwriting expert.  He reviewed 20 applications and affidavits for absentee ballots and opined all of them show at least two, in some three, different handwritings.  She also argued that votes cast stemming from 19 applications for absentee ballots mailed to Dean's home address must be disqualified.  According to Blankenship, Alabama law requires that ballots be mailed to addresses where applicants "regularly receive mail," and that those 19 voters did not "regularly receive mail" at Dean's house.

Blankenship also reminded the judge about testimony from people who cast ballots by absentee, arguing each vote should be disqualified.  In one such example, a voter testified Tuesday that he cast an absentee ballot in Brighton although he lived in Vestavia Hills.

"We've done everything we came to do and now it's in the hands of the court," said Lucien Blankenship, Ms. Blankenship's co-counsel.

Arthur Shores Lee, attorney for Dean, argued the evidence presented did not disqualify enough votes.

"All we know is we had a handful of witnesses that voted absentee that checked they were going to out of town, and maybe later it was determined they were not out of town, but nevertheless, they voted and they testified that if they voted today, they'd vote for Brandon Dean," Lee said.

Dean got most of the absentee ballots cast, 99 out of 108, giving him a total of 376 votes.  Cooper landed in a distant second place with 195 total votes, including 5 absentees.

"A lot of people did get out and vote, but some went about the process in the wrong way in voting absentee, it appears," Lee said.  "I can't say the majority did, we only had a handful of people to testify as to how they voted absentee."

Cooper and his legal team say they endured this nearly year-long process for the benefit of Brighton's residents.

"It could clear the air not only for Mr. Cooper but for Mr. Dean as well," said Mr. Blankenship. "It's going to give the citizens an opportunity to relax and know they have a mayor in office that they can trust was elected properly."

It will take approximately one month for Verin to issue his decision. Perhaps in some foreshadowing, Verin remarked to the parties that the residency issue was not the stronger of the two arguments, which means it could be that the integrity of only 35 absentee ballots stand between Brighton and a special run-off election.

"We're prepared to do whatever it takes to make sure this election is fair and honest, and we are prepared to make sure that those people who don't live in Brighton don't have an opportunity to vote in it," said Cooper.

Dean did not answer questions from reporters Wednesday afternoon but read a prepared statement.

In this center of justice on this day, we have made war on the massive narratives of oppression and disenfranchisement to the peril of those who fail to concede to recognize our humanity and our ownership interest in these United States through the vote.  This conspirational malice is a unified objective of forces identifying themselves as us among us, but allies amongst our enemies. Perhaps it's something straight out of Brighton, perhaps it's about truth and service, perhaps it's just about reaching as we climb.  Whatever it is, it remains worth fighting for, because what we do in this life echoes in eternity.  So many doors have closed in my face throughout my life – opportunities. And I look at this one that is open and yet you have those who have been so interested and devoted to taking it away, but God, but God. Thank you and have a good day.

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