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    Voting system faces first key test

    The candidates aren't the only ones whose political futures are on the line in Tuesday's elections.

    By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 10, 2002

    Pinellas County's new voting machines will make their debut Tuesday, providing a test of voter confidence and the efforts of elections supervisor Deborah Clark.

    "Her office will live and die by how those machines do," said political consultant Todd Pressman. "They are center stage, and they need to turn in a good show."

    Pressman, county commissioners and other politicians said they expect Tuesday's Clearwater city election to go smoothly. They heaped praise on Clark's campaign to educate voters and said the machines are a huge improvement over punch cards.

    "Deborah Clark has truly tried to visit every venue and display the voting machines wherever there was an opportunity," said Commissioner Karen Seel, a Clearwater resident. "I believe she's gone above and beyond."

    But if things fall apart, watch out.

    "I think Deborah's worked hard," said political consultant Mary Repper. "I'm confident she'll pull it off. But if she doesn't, screams will be heard. Including mine."

    The presidential recounts that made Florida a national joke last year -- and forced Pinellas and other counties to get new voting machines -- raised the political profile of every Florida elections supervisor's office.

    Controversy has shadowed Clark's office ever since.

    There were errors in Pinellas County's presidential vote totals, then questions about Clark's husband's involvement with an elections equipment company seeking the county's business. There was the last-minute revelation that the man who would have managed Pinellas' voting systems was facing fraud charges.

    Repper said Clark has the advantage of being "one of the nicest people you would ever meet" and hasn't suffered permanent political damage. But she needs Tuesday to work.

    "You can only have so many of those, and then people say, 'Wait a minute,' " Repper said.

    Clark's isn't the only political future at risk. County commissioners made the final decision to choose Sequoia Voting Systems' touch-screen machine. If problems arise, they will face questions as well.

    "The ultimate decision was the county commissioners'," said Commissioner Bob Stewart. "You can't escape that fact. There are seven collective necks on the line."

    Commissioner Susan Latvala said the blame would depend on what went wrong. If there is election-day chaos, then it's Clark's problem. But if the machines don't work, commissioners will get the heat.

    "Everyone will be looking for someone to blame," she said.

    Clark isn't even considering such possibilities. Asked about the political fallout if things go wrong Tuesday, she said it simply won't happen.

    "It is going to go smoothly," she said. "There's no doubt in my mind."

    Her office has taken voting machines to nearly 100 sites around Clearwater, giving more than 4,200 voters a chance to try them out. Poll workers have practiced setting up, using and taking down the machines. Elections workers with extra training will be in every polling place. Sequoia technicians and elections staffers will roam the city, all armed with radios.

    From power outages to confused voters, Clark said, her office is ready for any contingency.

    "We've looked at every possibility, and we have backup plans," she said. "We feel we can recover from anything that comes up out there."

    Her goal, she said, is to restore people's confidence in the voting process.

    "Our main priority is to make sure the voters understand how to use it," she said. "If they understand how to use it, they will know they voted accurately and that their votes will count. That's the bottom line."

    Or, as Clearwater lawyer Ed Armstrong put it: "This is an opportunity to prove we are not a banana republic."

    Armstrong and others offered key measures of what will make Tuesday a success:

    The results must be accurate. Especially if results are close, Armstrong wants "a very clear audit trail" and no controversy about who really won.

    "There's a heightened awareness," Armstrong said. "A losing candidate is far more likely to issue a challenge now."

    Clark's office must be ready for crisis. "Something's going to pop somewhere," Pressman said. "The question is, how well will they be able to respond, fix it and rise to the moment?"

    The faster the results, the better. Clark said she is putting accuracy before speed. But because votes will be tallied by computer, others said they expect promptness.

    "This is the electronic age, so this is better and faster," Pressman said.

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