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    Voters punched too many holes

    Despite all the recent voter education, and the orange signs at the polls, 200 St. Petersburg voters voted for too many mayoral candidates.

    By ADAM C. SMITH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 1, 2001


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Inches from every voter's face Tuesday were bright orange signs warning about hanging chad. Poll workers offered punch card ballot demonstrations to even the most experienced voters. As if that wasn't enough, the media had already spent weeks saturating the public with details about punch card ballots and their pitfalls.

    Yet 200 St. Petersburg voters still managed to vote for too many mayoral candidates in Tuesday's primary election.

    What elections authorities have said for months appears true: Ultimately, there's only so much they can do to ensure voters don't botch their ballots.

    "It's very frustrating. We just pull our hair out," said Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, who was not especially surprised by the voter mistakes.

    "We've seen this for years, so it's no surprise to us. It's just that now everybody else is paying attention," she said.

    It may be only fitting that in Florida's first major punch card election since the presidential mess, there's talk of a recount. City Council member Larry Williams, edged out of the mayoral runoff by 219 votes, met with St. Petersburg City Clerk Jane Brown on Wednesday and inquired about filing a protest or requesting a manual recount.

    "That decision hasn't been made yet. We haven't shut down any of our options at this point," Sue Brett, campaign manager for Williams, said Wednesday afternoon. Williams could not be reached.

    The voting mistakes do point to a key benefit offered by newer voting technology likely to replace the punch cards in place in Pinellas and 23 other counties. Other systems, including some punch card versions, alert voters if they have voted too often in a given race. They give voters a second chance.

    Even with nine names on the mayoral ballot, it's tough to find excuses for the St. Petersburg voters who blew it Tuesday.

    This was no unusual butterfly ballot like Palm Beach County offered in November or two-page ballot like Duval's. In fact, even in the City Council primaries, where voters had as few as three names on the ballot, a few voters managed to vote for too many candidates.

    Another 87 ballots failed to register any mayoral vote.

    "I cannot explain to you the actions of voters," Brown shrugged.

    St. Petersburg's rate of rejected mayoral ballots, 0.77 percent, is actually good by Florida's November standards but still seems stunning given all the publicity about how to vote -- and how not to vote -- with punch card ballots. The worst record went to Precinct 225, Prayer Tower Church of God in Christ on 37th Street S, where three of 72 voters, more than 4 percent, voted for more than one mayoral candidate.

    The city's canvassing board, made up of City Council members not on the ballot Tuesday, meets to certify the results today and could consider a recount request then.

    Williams barely missed a mandatory machine recount, with fellow council member Kathleen Ford beating him into the runoff by just 0.59 percent of the total vote. Had he come within 0.5 percent, state law would have required another machine count.

    State law gives Williams or anyone else on the ballot until 72 hours after election night to request a manual recount and five days from election night to file a formal protest. Court challenges to the election results must be filed within 10 days.

    A manual recount would appear to offer little hope to Williams. A candidate's best shot for picking up more votes would be ballots where the machine read no vote, but which actually had partially dislodged chad. Williams would need to pick up more than 200 votes, and the mayoral contest recorded only 87 "undervote" ballots.

    A potential avenue for protest would be questioning whether elections staffers properly counted ballots. In November, it turned out workers fed hundreds of absentee ballots into counting machines twice and failed to count hundreds more ballots. Al Gore wound up with a net gain of nearly 500 votes in Pinellas during the mandatory recount.

    But elections officials say they had no such problems Tuesday night.

    Brett, Williams' campaign manager, was the only candidate representative to attend a test of the counting machines last week. She said after the test she was "completely comfortable" with the process.

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