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Election 2004

Lost votes should oust official, opponent says

Rob MacKenna says Buddy Johnson misled officials and should resign from his post.

By JEFF TESTERMAN
Published October 23, 2004

PRESIDENTIAL RACE
Voter drives flood rolls
Protesters shadow Bush at fundraiser
Political imagery gets wild in TV ads
Clinton comeback, good for Kerry?

AT A GLANCE
Bush Kerry

POLITICS 2004
Lucy Morgan column: Vicious attack ads obscure vital issues in campaign home-stretch
Hillsborough: Lost votes should oust official, opponent says
Tampa Bay: Students complain of false party swap
State: Bradley, a third Senate candidate, for 'veterans and common man'
The nation: Ballot battles rise in the courts
Pasco: Returns look good for early voting plan
Citrus: Wooten says flier's fraud claim untrue

CAMPAIGN CALENDAR

TODAY: Hip Hop Summit Action Network Bus Tour 2 p.m., Tropicana Stadium Parking Lot, 1 Tropicana Drive. Headliners will include rap artists Akon and Styllion; ESPN sportscaster and former New York Jet Walter Briggs; Tampa Bay Bucs player Ellis Wyms; and Southern Style rappers Evening Riders, Ace Boon Koon, Black Jack Boys, Kream, and LK & Tom G. Shuttles will transport young voters to early voting locations until 5 p.m. Call 866-0873.

TUESDAY: Meg Ryan and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 6 p.m. , Tampa Theater, 711 Franklin St., Tampa. A discussion on President Bush's environmental policies. Free. Call 595-7314.

WEDNESDAY: Parent Forum on the Pinellas County School Referendum Ballot Question 7 p.m., McMullen-Booth Elementary School, 3025 Union St., Clearwater. Call (813) 884-3782.

TAMPA - Rob MacKenna, Democratic challenger for supervisor of elections, accused incumbent Buddy Johnson Friday of providing an "inaccurate and misleading account" of his office's loss of 245 votes in the August primary and suggested Johnson "should be drawing a paycheck elsewhere."

In a noon news conference, MacKenna backed his charges with evidence from an internal report on 245 votes lost when an elections worker mistakenly left a touch screen voting machine in the "test" mode.

The report and a Friday St. Petersburg Times story detailing it say the Supervisor of Elections' staff looked for the lost votes for 13 days without ever informing Johnson or state election officials of the 245-vote discrepancy.

MacKenna, a computer programmer for the Eckerd Corp., also accused Johnson of deceiving county commissioners about the search for the lost votes, and of delaying disclosure of the incident to the public "to minimize the negative media coverage that this revelation was sure to cause."

It was inaction by Johnson' office, MacKenna said in calling for Johnson's resignation, that allowed a statutory 10-day period for challenging an election to expire while his staff was still trying to hunt down the missing 245 votes.

Bill Bunkley, who lost the Republican primary for the District 47 seat in the Florida House by 130 votes, said he might have filed a timely challenge if he had known of the 245 missing votes.

Discovered only after official certification of the Aug. 31 primary election, the 245 votes found at a West Gate Regional Library early voting site are not part of the county's final tally. As it turned out, the 245 votes did not affect the outcome of any Hillsborough race, a fact that MacKenna attribute to "dumb luck.

"That is no excuse," he added. "We cannot rely on luck to run a successful election."

Friday, Johnson downplayed the internal report on the handling of the lost 245 votes and emphasized the successes of his office in registering huge numbers of new voters and expanding early voting sites.

"This is old news," Johnson said. "It has no bearing on the Nov. 2 election. We understand what happened and it will not happen again."

Johnson, 52, is a co-founder of the Buddy Freddy's restaurant chain, three-term GOP legislator from Plant City and former director of the Florida Real Estate Division who was appointed elections chief last year when Pam Iorio quit to run for Tampa mayor. Johnson maintains he possesses the management experience to handle the increasingly complex elections office.

MacKenna, 33, a newcomer who worked for Howard Dean's bid for the presidency, claims superior technical expertise and has seized on election missteps by Johnson's office, including the saga of the lost 245 votes and a primary vote tabulation that slowed to a crawl because of an unforeseen computer glitch.

Now, MacKenna says Johnson was out of the loop while his staff struggled to locate the 245 missing votes, and then failed to be prompt and straightforward with voters when he finally was apprised of the problem.

The investigation into the 245-vote discrepancy was handled by Johnson's chief of staff, Dan Nolan, a former U.S. Army and Central Command colonel who joined Johnson last year. Nolan admitted underestimating the urgent need to account for the missing votes or to notify Johnson and other officials about the discrepancy. In the Times story, Nolan took responsibility for the oversight, saying, "I screwed this up."

Friday, however, Nolan was no longer talking, and Johnson announced the elections office would "speak with one voice" - his.

Johnson insists he's been up-front about the lost votes. He assured county commissioners on Oct. 6 that he had released information on the 245 votes immediately upon learning of it from Nolan.

That was at about 6:30 a.m. the early morning of Thursday, Aug. 16, he said. Later that day, Johnson notified Florida Secretary of State Glenda Hood of the lost votes in a faxed letter.

But Johnson did not make the first public disclosure of the lost votes until about 4 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 17, as news organizations were preoccupied with Hurricane Ivan slamming Florida's Panhandle and Tropical Storm Jeanne meandering through the Caribbean.

Johnson said he met with two executives from Hill & Knowlton, a public relations firm with a $160,000 contract to handle voter education for the elections office, to coordinate the news release about the 245 votes.

But Friday, neither Johnson nor Hill & Knowlton vice president Ron Bartlett could recall why it took 11/2 days to get the release out by e-mail.

Jeff Testerman can be reached at 813 226-3422 or by e-mail at testerman@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 23, 2004, 01:12:14]


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