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Election 2004

Another election mistake surfaces

Pinellas' elections supervisor reported that a county charter amendment passed; in fact, it was defeated.

By MICHAEL SANDLER and DAVID KARP
Published December 4, 2004


Pinellas elections office knew soon after Election Day of a discrepancy in vote totals on a statewide slot machine initiative, but they didn't fully investigate for two weeks.

By then, it was too late to correct the mistake.

On Friday, as details of the case became known, yet another mistake was revealed.

Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark gave the state the wrong results of a Pinellas County charter amendment, reporting that voters approved it rather than rejected it, the St. Petersburg Times learned.

Clark accepted responsibility and said she would do "whatever it takes" to restore confidence in her office.

"All I can do is apologize to the public," Clark said. "I feel I let them down. I feel they had a lot of faith in me. I feel badly because I have shaken that faith."

Until Friday, Clark had not disclosed the incorrect vote totals to the public, or even to County Commissioner Susan Latvala, a member of the three-person Pinellas canvassing board that counts and approves the votes.

The latest blunder has raised bipartisan concerns about Clark's management of the office, which has suffered a series of gaffes since she took over four years ago.

Paul Bedinghaus, chairman for the Pinellas Republican Party, said Clark should ask the state division of elections to review her office's internal control procedures.

"I would do that as soon as possible, before the spring election, in an effort to reassure the voting public that the office is in good order," Bedinghaus said.

In the closely contested 2000 presidential election, 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 election. In 2002, she gave voters the wrong ballots in a Lealman election. A month ago, her office lost track of 280 ballots that were not counted until it was too late.

Clark said at one point she considered the latest troubles clerical errors that could be fixed without telling the canvassing board.

Latvala said Friday she was stunned when told she had signed off on flawed election results. She did not know of the mixups until a reporter called.

"It's amazing," Latvala said Friday. "Absolutely amazing."

She said she was troubled by Clark's failure to alert the canvassing board.

"Obviously, everything we do should be transparent," Latvala said. "Certainly, it would have been erring on the side of caution. We all should have known."

Clark said she thought she had mentioned the matter with Latvala and Judge Patrick Caddell, the third member of the board.

"I thought I had told them about it," Clark said. "If I didn't, I was remiss in not saying something. I agree, I should have advised them of that."

In one sense, Clark was lucky. Neither mistake changed the outcome of an election.

Statewide, voters approved the slot machine amendment by more than 119,000 votes. Pinellas' mixup was about 17,000 votes.

In the case of the local charter amendment, the voters' decision stands. That incorrect totals were sent to the state only amounts to a technical mistake.

Even so, the mistakes are raising concerns.

Carolyn Wadlinger, chairwoman for the Pinellas Democratic Executive Committee, said she has "sadly" lost faith in Clark, who is a Republican. She wants a complete review of this past election cycle.

"Personally, I like Deborah Clark a lot," Wadlinger said. "But obviously, the job is not getting done."

Clark could have discovered the latest mistakes as early as Nov. 4, leaving plenty of time to fix them. Pinellas had just sent the state its preliminary results.

That day, Jim Armstrong, her information technology administrator, got a call from opponents of Amendment 4, the South Florida slot machine amendment. They told Armstrong that the state Web site had the wrong results for Pinellas County.

Armstrong, who called the state, said he thought someone in Tallahassee had mistyped the results onto the Web site.

"As far as we we're concerned, the problem was solved," he said.

In fact, Pinellas had sent the wrong results to Tallahassee. Had they checked, they might have caught the error.

Election specialist Michael Greenman made the error when copying vote results from a computer form to an official form sent to the state.

The problem, Clark said, was that a machine reporting the results placed a higher vote total first in each case. In the two amendments, voters said no but Greenman mistakenly recorded them as yes votes.

Eight days later, on Nov. 12, Pinellas sent the state its final results. Greenman filled out the final form again - and made the same mistake. Then, he added to his error. He also mixed up the votes on the Pinellas County charter amendment.

Greenman said deputy administrator Bob Odom, who resigned Nov. 20 amid the missing ballots controversy, proofread the form sent to the state. Clark and the other two canvassing board members signed it.

After the state certified the election, Clark's office found an unopened box of 268 absentee ballots. Clark was livid and threatened publicly to discipline staff who had made the mistake.

Amid that climate, Greenman said he learned of his errors.

He said Leslie Sullivan with the state Division of Elections called him about the mistake and said the county could correct the error. The canvassing board members did not even need to sign the returns, he remembers Sullivan telling him.

Sullivan, a mid-level analyst in the records section, denied through a spokeswoman talking to Greenman at that point.

Clark said she believes Greenman.

"I know Michael Greenman would not make this up," Clark said.

She thought it was such a minor issue, Clark said, she didn't mention it to reporters attending a news conference in her office.

"My staff, in good faith, thought that this had been resolved, and that it was not an issue," she said.

Jenny Nash, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Glenda Hood, said the law is clear - the state can't fix errors after the deadline.

Clark, however, said she didn't realize the error could not be fixed.

"I would do anything I could to undo all this," Clark said. "This is the election that will not die."

Gov. Jeb Bush, saying he didn't have enough information, declined to comment on Clark's actions. He said he wants lawmakers to amend state law so similar errors in state records could be corrected.

"If you know there has been a mistake ... there ought to be a chance for an asterisk at least," Bush said. "What would happen if the difference changed the results? It would be a big-time lawsuit and a legitimate one. I don't think the law would have been held up."

Times staff writer Joni James contributed to the reported. Michael Sandler can be reached at 727 445-4162 or sandler@sptimes.com

PINELLAS ELECTION ERRORS

Reported wrong results to the state on constitutional Amendment 4, a slot machine initiative, saying Pinellas County approved it.

Reported wrong results on Pinellas Charter Amendment 4, saying voters approved it.

Misplaced 280 ballots until it was too late for the state to count them.

HOW IT HAPPENED

NOV. 4: Clark sends the state Pinellas' preliminary vote tally, which includes incorrect results for Amendment 4, a slot machine initiative.

NOV. 4: The same day, Clark's staff learns the state Web site has the wrong result for Amendment 4. Staff thinks the state is in error.

NOV. 12: Clark sends Pinellas' final vote tally to the state, but results for the slot machine measure and a Pinellas County charter amendment are incorrect.

NOV. 14: State certifies the election.

NOV. 15: Clark's staff finds a box of 268 uncounted absentee ballots.

NOV. 16 OR NOV. 17: Staff tells Clark she reported wrong returns on two amendments.

NOV. 17: Staff finds 12 more uncounted ballots.

NOV. 18: Canvassing board counts new ballots. Clark doesn't publicly mention the problem with wrong vote totals.

NOV. 19: Clark sends the state new results.

DEC. 2: St. Petersburg Times discovers reporting errors on Amendment 4.

DEC. 3: Times discovers Clark also reported wrong results on the Pinellas charter amendment.

[Last modified December 5, 2004, 12:06:48]


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