The California Republican Party says it will pursue its lawsuit against Contra Costa County over whether election count observers have the right to challenge specific signatures on vote-by-mail ballots, calling it a critical statewide issue.

"Our intent is to proceed with the litigation and try to vindicate in a published opinion, or at least a decision of the Superior Court or an appellate court, the rights of observers," said California Republican Party attorney Charles Bell. "We think this is a matter of statewide significance."

The party and Contra Costa County Registrar Steve Weir did reach a hallway settlement early this week on how many observers would be permitted to watch election clerks process the 1,830 provisional ballots from voters in the hotly contested 11th Congressional District.

Weir will accommodate observers from both parties and allow them to stand over the shoulders of the election clerks and within easy view of the documents. Observers may make notes about what they see.

Last week, Weir agreed to slow down the voter signature verification process on the 11th District vote-by-mail ballots and provide close-up access. The clerk's official observation room contains windows into a portion of the ballot counting facility, though visibility is limited.

But Weir has steadfastly refused the GOP's demand for the right to challenge a signature on either vote-by-mail or provisional ballots and compel further review.

The side agreements carry little or no weight outside Contra Costa or even other races, and the GOP wants a ruling that will clarify the question statewide.

It's no accident that the GOP has filed its lawsuit in Contra Costa County. Weir is a past president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials and is widely regarded as a national leader in election processes.

The GOP also said observers received far more generous accommodations in Alameda and San Joaquin county election offices despite public positions similar to those voiced by Weir.

Under Weir's interpretation, California law allows such challenges to occur only before the election and only by poll workers at the precincts or by an individual who submits evidence that a voter is ineligible to receive a vote-by-mail ballot, Weir said.

"A voter who is challenged then has the opportunity to speak," Weir said. "We cannot allow a 'casual' observer to challenge a voter's right to participate when he or she is not present."

Bell argues that observation without the opportunity to challenge defeats the purpose of the 2009 legislation that allowed observers into election offices during the counting process.

Once a signature is verified and the ballot is stripped from the envelope, in order to ensure a secret vote, it is nearly impossible to recover ineligible votes, he said.

He also argues that some counties allow informal challenges, while taking a public position that supports Weir's interpretation.

Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Barry Baskin has been unwilling, so far, to issue an order but has repeatedly urged Weir and the GOP to work out a settlement.

"In my experience, judges hate to get involved in elections," Bell said. "But we need to resolve this issue either in court or seek clarity in the legislation."

Weir agreed.

"No one likes to go to court but, sometimes, that's how the law is interpreted," Weir said. "Right now, we don't have a standard and that could be a good thing. If there is a rule that is published, we will do what the court orders."

Contact Lisa Vorderbrueggen at 925-945-4773, IBABuzz.com/politics or at Twitter.com/lvorderbrueggen.