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Advisers smoothed voting in Pinellas

The county had 40 people ready to help befuddled poll workers. Some tweaking remains.

By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2002

The county had 40 people ready to help befuddled poll workers. Some tweaking remains.

When poll workers began to set up the county's new touch screen voting machines early Tuesday, several of them weren't sure what to do.

In South Florida, problems with that first step meant some polling places opened hours late.

In Pinellas, every polling place opened on time.

The difference? In Pinellas, 40 "election advisers," double the number of the 2000 election, were on call. The advisers, poll workers with extra training and technical know-how, each had 10 polling places to look after.

On Tuesday morning, advisers were quickly called in to help the uncertain workers, said Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark.

The advisers also came to the rescue later in the day, when other poll workers had trouble making the demonstration machines work, Clark said.

But the primary election didn't go perfectly in Pinellas. There were flaws throughout the day. A few machines didn't work, or weren't properly set up. Seven of the county's 3,400 cartridges couldn't be read electronically, delaying a final result until nearly 1 a.m. Some voters came to the wrong polling place or said the elections office had recorded their party affiliation incorrectly.

And Clark hasn't figured out how much extra she will pay the more than 3,000 poll workers who had to work two extra hours after Gov. Jeb Bush ordered polls in every county to stay open late.

Despite those troubles, Pinellas avoided the disastrous voting problems of South Florida. Polls opened on time. Except for one polling place that closed briefly, the county's 383 precincts stayed open until 9 p.m. Most results came in quickly. There were no long lines, few questions about flawed votes and many voters said they like the new machines.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a major success," Clark said. "I'm so elated, I just can't tell you. I'm just so relieved."

At 12:10 a.m. Wednesday, County Judge Patrick Caddell realized that most of the results, except for those from the flawed cartridges, had been counted. Caddell, chairman of the county Canvassing Board, pointed to the clock. Just imagine, he said, if Pinellas polls could have closed at 7 p.m.

"Do you realize that, but for Broward and Dade, it would be 10 o'clock?" he said. "I think that's impressive."

Clark and her staffers feared that poll workers would misplace cartridges, the devices that record the votes on each touch screen machine, on election night. So they plastered their poll worker training room with about 20 signs, each close to 2 feet high: "BRING BACK ALL CARTRIDGES."

It worked. Just after midnight Wednesday, Jim Armstrong, the office technology manager, came out of the vote tabulating room.

"All the cartridges came back," he announced, sounding as if he didn't quite believe it. "Every single one."

Office staffers will review Tuesday's events, looking for any changes that should be made before November's general election, Clark said. Some issues already have emerged:

-- The mystery of the seven flawed cartridges. Because those cartridges couldn't be read, workers had to use paper printouts from those machines and type the results into election computers, with Canvassing Board members watching for accuracy.

In the Clearwater election in March, three cartridges didn't read because workers removed them too soon. On Wednesday, Sequoia Voting Systems vice president Mike Frontera said he's not sure whether that happened this time. Sequoia sold voting machines to Pinellas County.

-- More cartridge readers at remote sites. The county's two sites for transferring results over a cable line had five readers each, Clark said, and cartridges stacked up. More readers would mean faster results.

-- Better instructions for voters who have questions. A few voters said they used the wrong party's ballot, or made a mistake, but didn't ask a poll worker until after they had pushed the "cast ballot" button -- the electronic equivalent of dropping your vote in a ballot box. Among them: a Clearwater voter who said poll workers then gave her another ballot and allowed her to vote twice.

Clark said the office is investigating the Clearwater report and may add to the instructions on the side of each machine, telling people to ask questions first.

-- Better training for provisional ballots. When problems arise, some voters fill out paper ballots. The Canvassing Board reviews those to see whether the votes should count. On Wednesday, those included at least three ballots filled out because of a possible machine failure. Caddell said poll workers didn't give board members enough detail about the machine problem.

-- More county employees as poll workers. Pinellas signed up more than 150 county workers to help at the polls. Clark said they were so valuable she hopes to add to their ranks.

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