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Election 2004

Pinellas voting gaffe uncovered

The 34,000-vote clerical error would not have affected the slot machine initiative.

Published December 3, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - On Election Night last month, the results were clear: Pinellas County voters defeated by more than 17,000 votes an initiative to legalize slot machines in South Florida.

But the official state record says the exact opposite, the result of a clerical error by the office of Pinellas Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark.

The mistake, largely unnoticed until highlighted Thursday by unsuccessful opponents of Amendment 4, would not have changed anything. The slot machine measure passed by more than 119,000 votes statewide.

But in a state whose image is tainted by election problems, the 34,000-vote mistake underscores the fragility of a system that ultimately relies on humans to get it right. It also is another embarrassment for Clark, who never revealed the gaffe publicly.

She already has come under fire three times for mishandling ballots, including misplacing 280 absentee ballots last month until it was too late to count them.

In the closely contested 2000 presidential election, Clark's 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.

Clark and her immediate staff, attending a statewide meeting of elections supervisors Thursday in Orlando, could not be reached for comment.

Senior Assistant County Attorney Betsy Steg said Clark's office tried to correct the error and had been told by the state elections staff that the record could be corrected.

State election officials said Thursday that by the time the error was discovered it was too late. Changing the official record would violate state law, they said.

"The responsibility for filing accurate results by the deadline rests solely with the local supervisors," said Jenny Nash, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Glenda Hood.

The mistake occurred when Clark's office sent its final tally of the Nov. 2 election to state officials in Tallahassee.

Preliminary electronic transmissions sent by her office showed Amendment 4 losing by more than 17,000 votes in Pinellas County. But under state law, only the final tally counts. It must be on paper and signed by the three-member county canvassing board.

Steg said she didn't know Thursday which elections staff members created Pinellas' final tally. But the document shows staff transposed the "Yes" and "No" vote tallies.

It apparently went unnoticed by either Clark or the two other canvassing board members, Pinellas County Judge Patrick Caddell and County Commission Chairman Susan Latvala, who signed the flawed form Nov. 12.

On Nov. 17, Clark's office sent a second amended tally to the state with the correct vote count on Amendment 4. The same day, Clark also sent a third amended tally that included results from the 280 absentee ballots that were misplaced and discovered after the state deadline.

State officials disregarded both notices. While state law has provisions for accepting late returns in emergencies, it does not allow similar leeway for simple typographical errors, Nash said.

"The law could not be more clear," she said. "Under Florida law there is a specific deadline and it says anything after that should be ignored."

State Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, the chairman for the anti-Amendment 4 group No Casinos, said the group had not decided whether to ask a court to intervene in state election results.

The group, hoping to trigger a recount statewide, is already challenging the counting of 78,000 Broward County absentee ballots. Only if the group prevails in that lawsuit would correcting the 17,000-vote mistake in Pinellas be relevant, because only then would it help the issue qualify for an automatic recount, he said.

"When you begin to look at all this and the numbers and realize all the bizarre things that have happened, you just want to make sure the votes were counted right," Johnson said.

[Last modified December 2, 2004, 23:57:10]

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