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Judge sends election dispute back to recount panel

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A judge ruled Thursday that Democrats may have a valid argument in challenging whether Republican Secretary of State Charlie White should be kicked out of office, but said the issue should be decided by a state election recount commission.

White, Indiana's top elections official, is accused of committing voter fraud by listing his ex-wife's address as his own on a voter registration form. White has previously acknowledged the voting error, chalking it up to his busy schedule and new marriage.

Democrats said he shouldn't have been allowed to run for office in November and took the case to the Indiana Recount Commission, which dismissed the case.

Marion Circuit Judge Louis Rosenberg ruled Thursday that the commission's December dismissal "was not in accordance with law." Rosenberg ordered the commission to rehear the case instead of taking up the case in court, noting that the courts strive not to unnecessarily intervene in election disputes.

"It would be an abuse of discretion to assume the responsibilities of the Recount Commission," he wrote in the 11-page ruling. He remanded the case to the commission for proceedings "to be conducted as expeditiously as possible."

Commission Director Brad Skolnik said the panel was reviewing the order before deciding on its next step.

"We had contended that if the court overturned the commission's decision, then the statute requires the dispute to be remanded back to the Recount Commission to hear and decide again," said Bryan Corbin, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, which represented the commission in the appeal.

Indiana Democratic Party Chairman Dan Parker didn't immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

In a separate case, White was indicted March 3 on seven felony counts including voter fraud and perjury by a grand jury in Hamilton County, just outside Indianapolis. If convicted of a felony, he would have to resign.

In the civil case filed in Indianapolis, Democrats argued that White's candidacy was illegal because he wasn't legally registered. White's attorneys and the recount commission argued that the word "legally" isn't included in the statutory requirements for the position.

White's attorney, Jim Bopp, argued that legislators had intended voter fraud to be handled as a crime, not a political disqualification. Any official convicted of felony voter fraud would automatically be removed, he said.

But Rosenberg rejected that argument.

"The example of the chief election officer of Indiana ignoring registration requirements without legal effect would be at odds with the legislative purpose of preventing election fraud," he wrote.

White has resisted calls from Gov. Mitch Daniels and others to step down, at least while the case against him is ongoing.

Both the civil case and the criminal case stem from the same root allegation that White committed voter fraud by listing his ex-wife's address as his own on a voter registration form. White has previously acknowledged the voting error, chalking it up to his busy schedule and new marriage.

Indiana Democrats called attention to the address discrepancy after White voted in last May's Republican primary. They contend that White intentionally skirted the law to keep his seat on the Fishers Town Council after moving out of the district he represented.

After the Nov. 2 election, in which White beat Democrat Vop Osili by about 345,000 votes, Democrats filed a petition with the Indiana Recount Commission challenging White's eligibility. The panel voted 2-1 along party lines to dismiss their challenge on Dec. 12, and Democrats appealed the decision in Marion Circuit Court. That set the state for Thursday's court order.

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