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Browning stays above the fray during election

Amid the cacophony of the polls, supervisor Kurt Browning expects perfection to keep the ballots moving.

By BRADY DENNIS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2002


Amid the cacophony of the polls, supervisor Kurt Browning expects perfection to keep the ballots moving.

Kurt Browning let out a victory laugh -- more like a sinister, satisfied chuckle -- as elections returns began pouring in at 9:04 p.m. Tuesday, making Pasco the first county in Florida to post results.

He gazed like a mad scientist pleased with an experiment, smiling broadly as modem lines carrying returns from precincts buzzed and lit up a nearby phone board like a Christmas tree.

"It's music to my ears," Browning said, as he high-fived county Commissioner Ted Schrader. "This is terrific. This is better than anything."

As much of the Florida elections system became a punch line once again, Pasco County shined. And more than that, the county's supervisor of elections and his staff shined.

On Wednesday, Browning said there was no magic formula behind the success, just hard work and a penchant for perfection.

"We've got a bunch of good people here," he said. "You have to be fastidious. You have to be crazy about it, and we are."

They also were prepared.

Browning gave the county's new touch screen voting systems a test run in April's municipal elections, meaning Tuesday's primary wouldn't be the trial run, as in many counties.

He also made sure all 151 precincts had working phone lines so poll workers could send results by modem. Staffers sent test information over the lines before Tuesday, and when several didn't work properly, he had phone companies repair them immediately.

Browning also forged a vigorous voter education campaign, putting up billboards and creating public service announcements in the weeks leading to the primary and putting an interactive touch screen demonstration on the office's Web site, www.pascovotes.com.

But perhaps more than any other area, he concentrated on training those who worked the polls. No one received less than three hours of training. Some got as many as 12.

"These poll workers, I think I beat them up a lot," Browning said. "I told them I want it perfect. Don't you make one mistake. Failure was not an option yesterday.

"But I'd never be able to do it without them. I don't care what voting system we had. These people are unsung heroes."

Of course there were problems -- some poll workers still unsure about how to use the new equipment, several mistakenly telling people they couldn't vote without a picture ID, several accused of being rude to voters.

But nothing like the problems in South Florida. While poll workers there locked doors early and swore at voters, only one in Pasco asked to leave before the 9 p.m. deadline, and that was for medical reasons.

"Most if not all of these people would walk on hot coals for (me)," Browning said. "And I don't think it's about Kurt Browning. It's about the process."

Browning said that while elections supervisors must shoulder some blame for Tuesday's fiasco, he said delinquent and incompetent poll workers also must accept responsibility.

"If you're a pilot, you can't just be good at takeoff. You have to be good at landings, too," he said. "If you can't get the plane down, you're going to take a lot of people with you.

"Elections are the same way. Poll workers must understand it's more than taking a covered dish, sitting there for 12 hours and having people sign a book. It's more important than that."

Browning said extra pay for longer hours Tuesday will cost his office roughly $10,000.

Whatever the cost, it was a job well done, said county Commissioner Ann Hildebrand.

"Kurt has panache; he's done a yeoman's job," Hildebrand said. "Everyone is always impressed with his professionalism and his smoothness with the job. He stays above the fray."

At 10:15 p.m. Tuesday, as other counties were just beginning major elections headaches, Pasco's returns already were in.

Browning had been at work 17 hours. He still paced wildly inside the elections center on McDonald Street in Dade City, patting staffers on the back, giving interviews, working the phones. But always smiling.

He looked like a man who had just won an election rather than run one.

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