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This Buddy system fails voters again

Published March 9, 2007


When Hillsborough Court Clerk Pat Frank discovered recently that her office had fallen behind processing legal documents, she called the media, explained the problem and set a deadline to fix it. When reporters asked Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson how he came to change two polling places in Tampa's city election Tuesday, what followed was seven hours of misinformation and spin that symbolizes the wall Johnson has built between his office and the public.

Funny thing is, changing a polling place is no big deal. Elections supervisors do it all the time. If churches and private groups, which provide space for voting, have a scheduling conflict, then elections officials make other arrangements. Johnson moved the polling place for precincts 215 and 217 from a church north of downtown to another church about half a mile away.

But the switch caught voters - even some of the candidates on the ballot - by surprise. They wondered why Johnson had not notified them. A Johnson aide told the Tampa Tribune, in a story published on its Web site midday Tuesday, that his office had mailed letters, maps and new ID cards to affected voters. "A lot of times, I hate to say this," the official said, "people don't read their mail." Two readers fired back that they received nothing. Reached by the Times, Johnson refused to say whether he mailed anything. "Letters were written and processed," he said. "But I don't know if voters received them."

Voters didn't receive them because none went out. Johnson's spokesman and his in-house lawyer confirmed as much several hours later. Never mind that Johnson put out a press release Feb. 21, two weeks earlier, that declared: "Voters in these precincts have been notified by mail of the change in location." He also said the changes "are temporary and were caused by ongoing construction or previous commitments of the polling sites." But at least one of those claims is not true, either. The new sites for 215 and 217 are permanent changes, Johnson's spokesman said. The church also insists it never asked to close its doors.

With questions rolling in, Johnson posted a press release - "City Election Going Smoothly" - on his Web site Tuesday afternoon. He reported that voter turnout at 215 and 217 "was actually twice as high" as the citywide rate. "This shows we did a good job of getting out the word," he said. But if Johnson's numbers were accurate, something drastic happened in the five hours before the polls closed. Turnout there came nowhere close to twice the citywide rate; in precinct 215, it was nearly half.

While the election is history, Johnson is still waiting for the U.S. Justice Department to approve his polling change. The attorney general, who must ensure any change does not hurt minorities, received the petition Feb. 16, one business day before early voting opened. The request came so late that Johnson asked the department to expedite the 60-day process. Johnson's spokesman blamed this, too, on the church: "The church notified us very late." He saw no reason to use at least three ensuing weeks to alert voters by mail - or even, as late as Election Day, to correct his Web site from steering voters to the old polling place.

The issue is no longer just Johnson's incompetence. It is his lack of credibility.

[Last modified March 8, 2007, 22:02:09]

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