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Chad proves no problem in St. Petersburg election

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- The hunt for chad extended across St. Petersburg on Tuesday.

At Walter P. Fuller Recreation Center in west St. Petersburg, Sandy Larkins studied the front and back of her ballot card before dropping it in the ballot box. At Campbell Park near Tropicana Field, Lauretta Allen did the same and intently watched a voting demonstration despite having voted dozens of times before. At the Police Athletic League building in Woodlawn, poll worker Bob Karcher chuckled about all the voters hoisting their ballots cards to examine them under the ceiling lights.

"They're all looking at the chads before putting them in the box," Karcher said. "One guy almost fell and broke his neck he was looking so hard."

It was Florida's biggest punch card ballot election since November, when the state taught the world how imprecise voting systems can be. St. Petersburg voters, now fully acquainted with hanging, dimpled and pregnant chad, were on guard Tuesday.

"I thought it was foolproof before and found out it wasn't," Trudy James said as she left Walter Fuller. "I made sure to check the back of my card this time."

Random interviews across the city turned up no sightings of errant chad or voter confusion. Of course, poll workers faced a fraction of the turnout they did in November, and voters had only one or two holes to punch on their ballots.

"My two holes went through. I held it up and looked at it," Ethel Gallup said as she left the Frank W. Pierce Recreation Center on Seventh Street S.

In case voters weren't already voting with care, poll workers aggressively offered instructions and demonstrations. If that wasn't enough, they plastered polling places with signs. Inches from every voter's nose was a bright orange reminder: "PUNCH ALL THE WAY THROUGH BALLOT CARD. REMOVE ANY HANGING CHAD FROM BACK OF CARD. IF YOU MAKE A MISTAKE, PLEASE ASK FOR ANOTHER BALLOT CARD!"

St. Petersburg City Clerk Jane Brown and Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark described it as a smooth, quiet election shortly before polls closed. The only problem by that time was caused not by ballots, but by an elevator.

A broken elevator at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church at Fourth Avenue N and Fifth Street forced poll workers to temporarily move operations downstairs until the elevator was fixed.

There may have been little reason to worry about befuddled voters anyway.

More than 8,400 presidential ballots in Pinellas County, 2.09 percent of all ballots cast, were rejected because the counting machines detected either no vote or too many. But of the state's 24 counties with punch card ballots, Pinellas' rejection rate was better than all but one county, Sarasota.

Still, elections supervisor Clark considers all the voter awareness produced by the presidential election mess to be helpful.

"I really think it was very positive because people are aware of the proper procedure," Clark said.

The major problem Pinellas faced in November was proper vote counting. Because elections staffers failed to feed some absentee ballots into the counter and fed others in twice, the recount wound up adding 471 votes to Al Gore's total and lopping 61 from George W. Bush's.

Elections officials tinkered with the counting procedure for this election, adding an extra person to double check counts. As the precinct tallies streamed in Tuesday night, City Clerk Brown described smooth sailing.

"Everything is just rolling right along," she said just before 9 p.m. "It's going very smoothly."

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