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Elections chief says petitions valid

Pinellas County's supervisor says her staff closely checked the signatures backing the gambling amendment.

By JONI JAMES
Published January 15, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - A day after antigambling advocates launched a campaign in Pinellas County hoping to document rampant fraud in qualifying a November ballot measure, Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark said she sees no evidence of a problem.

Clark said Friday she is confident her staff correctly reviewed the 53,601 petitions submitted to her office in support of Amendment 4.

The Nov. 2 ballot measure, approved by 51 percent of Florida voters, amended the state Constitution to allow slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward counties if voters there agree in a subsequent vote. If the Legislature taxes the machines, the revenue must go to public schools.

Nearly 40,000 petitions, 74 percent of the total submitted, were validated in Pinellas and counted toward the 488,722 needed statewide to qualify the measure. That's a pretty standard approval rate, Clark said.

As required by law, each petition was verified by Clark's employees using a computer copy of voter registration cards, which includes signatures. Any questionable signatures were checked by a second staffer. If there were still doubts, a "signature update request" was sent to the voter and the petition wasn't validated until after it was returned, Clark said.

"We know that people sometimes forget that they signed a petition, or sometimes people sign and they don't realize what they are signing," Clark said. "This petition drive began in May 2002. That's a long time to remember whether or not you signed a petition."

But hundreds of Pinellas voters say otherwise, prompted by antigambling advocates who are seeking evidence to support allegations that Amendment 4 backers cheated.

The amendment's backers, including parimutuel firms in South Florida, have denied the charge.

Starting Thursday, thousands of Pinellas voters received postcards from the "Florida Slot Petition Verification Project."

The cards were financed by the Humane Society of the United States, Floridians Against Expanded Gambling and Grey 2K USA. They asked voters to call a toll-free phone number if they didn't sign a petition supporting the measure.

The postcard campaign is under way despite a legal setback this week in Leon County. A judge tossed out a lawsuit by the three groups saying there is no precedent to intervene if there is no evidence the election was tainted. The plaintiffs plan to appeal.

Organizers said Friday that their phone banks were flooded and that they would keep them open indefinitely, contrary to the Friday deadline that was printed on the postcard.

"There is no way I signed that petition," said Arlene Seipel, 69, who used to see the progambling signature gatherers outside the Dunedin Library, where she volunteers. "Their spiel to people entering and leaving was "Help us get money for schools.' I knew what that was really about. I told them "No thank you.' "

Seipel said she signed no petitions during the last election cycle, but several callers to the Times said they did - but not the slot machine measure.

Retired pastry chef Rudolf Lang, 72, of St. Petersburg recalled signing a petition when he paid a speeding ticket last fall. "I signed one for a higher minimum wage, maybe it was somehow hidden in that one," Lang said.

Antigambling organizers have suggested paid signature gatherers may have done a "bait-and-switch." Often hawking multiple petitions at a time, they draw people in with one topic only to then ask for them to sign others.

Reports of such behavior last fall prompted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to launch an ongoing investigation.

[Last modified January 15, 2005, 01:02:06]


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