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Pinellas ballot box sat ignored in office

Pinellas elections supervisor Deborah Clark will ask the state for permission to change the county's official results.

By DAVID KARP
Published November 16, 2004

The unmarked brown box sat unnoticed in the Pinellas Supervisor of Elections office until Monday, two weeks after the election, when an employee cleaning a desk stumbled upon it.

Inside were 268 uncounted absentee ballots.

"I think this is a very serious situation," Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said Monday, vowing to fire or discipline any employee found to be negligent.

"I assume all responsibility for everything that happened in that department, but I have to rely on other people," Clark said. "It's not a one-woman show."

The unmarked box wasn't the only problem.

Five days ago, Clark sent the state the county's final results for the Nov. 2 election. But her office had failed to perform a standard check to ensure that all ballots had been accounted for.

Clark assumed her staff had performed the check, but they had not.

Now she will ask the state for permission to change Pinellas' official results. The canvassing board will count the missing ballots Thursday.

Although it is numerically possible, officials say the missing ballots probably won't change any results. Only a few races were decided by less than 268 votes - including the presidential contest.

George W. Bush won the presidential race in Pinellas by just 226 votes. While Bush's margin in Pinellas could change, his statewide victory won't.

A city commission seat in South Pasadena and a referendum in Indian Rocks Beach were also decided by fewer than 268 votes.

"If you found a couple hundred thousand votes in Ohio, that might be exciting," said Paul Bedinghaus, chairman of the Pinellas Republican Party. "I expect that human error will continue to occur as long as human beings are involved."

This is the third time since Clark became election supervisor in 2000 that her office has had problems handling ballots.

In the presidential race in 2000, the office neglected to count 1,400 ballots - and counted more than 900 ballots twice. In 2001, her office misplaced six absentee ballots in a Tarpon Springs city election.

The uncounted absentee ballots this time came from the St. Petersburg election office.

Election workers there put absentee ballots in a box to be delivered to the election service center in Largo, where they would be counted on Election Day.

That afternoon, a staff courier delivered the box from St. Petersburg to Largo.

Clark said her office has a system to track the boxes, but she could not describe it in detail during a phone interview from her home Monday night.

The box arrived at the election office, where it sat in plain sight in the absentee ballot department for 14 days.

Office spokeswoman Lori Hudson said other boxes and papers were piled on top of the box. The ballot box was not marked in any unique way. Clark could not say Monday why the box was not specially marked.

Voters, accustomed to putting punch card ballots in locked metal boxes, had been uneasy when they saw election officials throw absentee ballots in a brown box in the St. Petersburg office, said Democratic lawyer Peter Wallace.

Even before Election Day, missing ballots had caused embarrassment for another election supervisor. Hillsborough Supervisor of Election Buddy Johnson had been criticized in October after his staff lost 245 ballots in the Aug. 31 primary.

Normally, Clark would have detected the missing ballots when her staff checked to ensure that every ballot was accounted for.

Usually, every ballot, whether filed absentee or at a polling place, is registered into a computer system. After the election, workers compare the number recorded in the computer to the number of ballots.

For some reason, the staff did not perform the procedure.

Clark learned about the missing ballots on Monday afternoon. Clark did not return to the office because she said she needed to be with her husband, who is having surgery.

Her staff, though, worked past 5 p.m. She promised a thorough investigation.

"If we determine that this is the result of negligence, then those responsible will be held accountable," Clark said. "I can assure you of that."

-- David Karp can be reached at 727 893-8430 or karp@sptimes.com

[Last modified November 16, 2004, 00:39:15]


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