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Ballot instructions confuse voters

Absentee ballots came with two sets of instructions about how to mark a vote. But they contradicted one another on which writing tool to use.

Published October 16, 2004

TAMPA - Kelley Moore opened up his absentee ballot Friday and began reading the instructions. When it came to marking the ballot, the more he read the more confusing it became.

The official printed ballot was clear enough.

It said to mark choices with a No. 2 pencil. But a mimeographed instruction sheet provided by the office of Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson cast doubt on that. The sheet said to use black or blue ink or a dark pencil.

"I thought about it awhile and I decided to call and ask," said Moore, 59, a retired salesman who lives on Davis Islands. "They (at Johnson's office) said the information about the No. 2 pencil was incorrect. I was told to use a dark pen.

"But then I thought, what if I use a pen and I don't follow the instructions on the ballot - will they throw it out?"

Edith Schrier was in a similar quandary Friday. Schrier, 46, a Forest Hills resident who runs her own coin and jewelry company, also read both sets of instructions, also called Johnson's office and also was told: disregard the ballot and use a dark pen.

Schrier wasn't satisfied. She called local Democratic officials. They advised her to do what the ballot said: use a pencil.

"But then I thought, what if someone erases it," said Schrier "They could still tamper with it."

Since the disputed presidential election of 2000, when hanging chad, butterfly ballots and aborted recounts raised the consciousness - and paranoia level - of Florida voters, suspicions about ballot-marking instructions can't be dismissed.

Friday afternoon, Johnson said he had great sympathy for voters confused by dual instructions.

He also said absentee voters can use a dark pencil or a blue or black pen and have confidence their votes will be recorded.

"I understand completely," said Johnson. "I think the instructions could be clearer. In an effort to be helpful, we added the second set of instructions. Perhaps next time, we'll try to make it more consistent."

Johnson pointed out that the printed sheet of instructions cautioned voters not to use red ink, which is not easily read by optical scanners.

Alfie Charles, spokesman for Sequoia Voting Systems, which this year printed nearly 56,000 absentee ballots for Hillsborough, said Friday that optical scan devices "will read black ink, blue ink or dark pencil equally well." Charles was also sympathetic about local voters' concerns.

"People in Florida were told they weren't following directions in the 2000 election, and I think they're trying to make sure they do this year," he said. "There's an increased level of awareness now. People are just trying to do the right thing."

But Moore said his effort to get it right just made him angry.

"The voters in Florida look pretty dumb to the rest of the U.S.," he said. "You'd think we could at least get this straight."

Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or by e-mail at

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