Did elections supervisor try to cut in line at poll?

Published November 3, 2004

TAMPA - A day after his aborted, last-minute attempt to vote early at the College Hill Library, where hundreds waited as long as six hours to cast early ballots, Hillsborough elections supervisor Buddy Johnson waited his turn in line at his home precinct in Plant City on Election Day.

A day earlier, he told reporters that he left the College Hill library in east Tampa without early voting Monday because he realized it was after the site's 6 p.m. closing time.

Johnson, a Republican, denied he cut in front of hundreds of waiting voters in College Hill, an overwhelmingly black Democratic area. But he acknowledged he walked to a poll worker inside the library and decided to vote.

"I went in and checked with the manager and decided to vote because there was no one at the table," Johnson said. "I did not go outside to get in line. Somebody mentioned it was after the 6 o'clock closing time, so I decided to back out."

Elections workers say the last person to vote at College Hill Monday cast a ballot at nearly midnight after waiting six hours. If Johnson had gotten in line, it would have taken him several hours to get to a touch screen machine to vote.

A videotape made at the library Monday night by a Democratic Party supporter shows Johnson, in suit and tie, walking through a hallway crowded with people. Johnson turns around and holds up his yellow activation card for the camera, then tells the camera operator to get out. (The yellow cards are inserted into the touch screen machine, and they record that voter's selections.)

As Johnson walks ahead, a poll watcher approaches him. Johnson moves off to the side and talks on his cell phone. Rep. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, is standing nearby. Then Johnson walks out without voting.

Poll watcher Marie Samuels Parmer said she witnessed a fellow poll watcher confront Johnson inside the library.

Johnson "was about three (people) away from being taken to a booth when the poll watcher went up to him and said, "Excuse me, sir, what time did you arrive?' " Parmer said.

Parmer said the challenge prompted Johnson to leave.

"I don't know what time he got there, but he cut in line in front of all those people," Parmer said.

Tuesday, Johnson said he had not been challenged by any poll watcher at the College Hill Library.

The College Hill Library recorded 996 early voters Monday, the largest turnout during the entire voting period in that location.

Rob MacKenna, Johnson's challenger in the supervisor of elections race, said Tuesday he thought Johnson's possible attempt to get around the rules of his own office was troubling and inappropriate.

Johnson told the St. Petersburg Times Monday night that he went to the College Hill Library late that afternoon to check out reports of cars being vandalized while people waited in line to vote. Johnson, the county's most vocal proponent of early voting, said he decided to try to vote early since he was at the library anyway.

Johnson works in the supervisor headquarters downtown and could have stepped outside his office over the past two weeks and voted by touch screen or absentee ballot.

"It's sort of a tradition for me to vote on election day," Johnson said Tuesday after voting at the Bethany Baptist Church in Plant City.

He arrived at the church at 1:35 p.m. and briefly stepped out of line to check on things inside, but he asked people to save his spot in line.

"I'm not cutting in line," the elections chief told other voters.

Times staff writers Jay Cridlin, Jeff Testerman and Christopher Goffard contributed to this report.