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Citrus elections staff makes tough job look easy

By GREG HAMILTON, Citrus Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2002

Before the clock struck midnight on Tuesday, comedian Jay Leno already was cracking wise to a nationwide audience about yet another Florida election fiasco.

Before the clock struck midnight on Tuesday, comedian Jay Leno already was cracking wise to a nationwide audience about yet another Florida election fiasco.

Two years after our state tripped over itself on the world stage, we had our first chance to atone for the mistakes. Instead of a bravura performance, it was an encore of ineptitude in precincts and elections offices around the state.

That is, except for Citrus County.

As in the November 2000 general election, when Citrus was the first county to report final results to Tallahassee, the system here worked marvelously. While other counties stumbled to the finish line in 2000 (some never did fully complete their counts and recounts), Citrus glided. Tuesday night was a repeat performance of Citrus' competence.

Take a bow, Supervisor of Elections Susan Gill and your hard-working staff and volunteers.

Despite numerous wrinkles this year, from redistricting to adding precincts and changing others, the problems were few, minor and resolved quickly.

Because the folks in South Florida couldn't quite get it right, again, Gov. Jeb Bush extended polling hours for two hours statewide. That decision rattled some around the state. Gill's people took it in stride.

The voting stopped at 9 p.m. By 9:10 p.m., early returns already were being projected onto a blank wall at the elections office on N Apopka Avenue in Inverness. The candidates, media and hard-core political junkies hadn't even staked out their spots along the counter and 21 of 41 precincts had been counted.

By 9:20 p.m., 35 precincts were in. As quickly as the staff could load the discs with fresh numbers into the laptop at the counter, updates flashed onto the wall. Accompanying the numbers were colorful pie charts, so even if you were in the back of the room or couldn't quite make out the numbers, you could tell if one candidate was ahead or behind by their piece of the pie.

At 9:39 p.m., 39 of 41 were in. At 9:50, every precinct was in except one. Number 206 in Beverly Hills checked in at 9:56, and it was all over.

Gill's lobby, the busiest place in Inverness just moments before, was all but empty at 10:10 p.m. The herd had moved on to the bars along Apopka to celebrate or commiserate, but Gill's staff was still at work, answering phone calls, faxing results to media outlets around the state and, most importantly, waiting for the final batch of votes.

A special red box carrying an unknown number of uncounted and provisional ballots from around the county was en route. Would there be enough to change the outcome of the closest local race of the night: the County Commission District 4 Republican primary in which incumbent Jim Fowler held a 25-vote edge over Joyce Valentino?

Gill was unflappable as she waited, easing through a television interview, then handing out sheets of precinct-by-precinct vote breakdowns. She calmly answered the same questions over and over again. (Would there be a recount? Are all the absentees in? And what exactly is a provisional ballot?)

Shortly after 11, the straggler ballots were counted: None of the outcomes had changed and the staff could finally exhale.

Moments later, they began preparing for Wednesday's recount while speculating aloud about how the headlines were going to portray all of Florida's elections officials as bumblers who can't get elections right, even with two years to prepare.

Some people paint with broad brushes, such as the guy who blamed Gill for a change in a state election law. His recent e-mail to her said that she should be hung by her ankles till she dies. That's the thanks you sometimes get for a job well done.

The knucklehead may have been onto something, though. Maybe Gill's team should be running the elections for the entire state. At least we'd have believable results in quickly and accurately.

Geez, professionalism in Florida elections. What a concept.

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