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Baker vs. Ford affirmed

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 4, 2001


LARGO -- The St. Petersburg Canvassing Board unanimously certified Saturday that Rick Baker and Kathleen Ford defeated their seven opponents in Tuesday's mayoral primary and will face off in the March 27 general election.

The board's decision came after it spent four hours manually recounting more than 3,700 punch card ballots at the request of third-place finisher Larry Williams.

The recount of eight precincts, three of them selected by Williams, represented 10 percent of the ballots cast Tuesday.

The board found only a one-vote discrepancy from the machine count: One vote the machine recorded for Baker was really a vote for Ford. The discovery increased Ford's lead over Williams to 220 votes.

"We're delighted," said Ford, who arrived at the Pinellas County Elections Service Center on 49th Street N just as the Canvassing Board certified the results.

Williams attorney, Bruce Denson, left the door open for Williams to further challenge the results of the election. He said the board should have recounted some absentee ballots Saturday, and he said that pages showing the machine totals lay on the counting tables during part of the recount. He said that could give the "appearance of impropriety."

"We've got some concerns with things that happened here today," Denson said afterward, adding that he planned to discuss the matter today with Williams. Williams could not be reached Saturday for comment.

Canvassing Board members -- the five City Council members who were not running in Tuesday's primary -- took offense to Denson's statements.

They said that they counted in full view of a dozen observers, including Denson, and never consulted machine tally sheets, except to compare manual count results of each precinct to the machine count.

"Based on the results we have in front of us, it should be over," Canvassing Board member Richard Kriseman said.

"Our sheets were under the box" containing the ballots, City Council member Bill Foster told Denson.

Pinellas County Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark, whose office contracts with the city for election services, called the manual recount "the smoothest manual recount we have ever been associated with."

She asked the board to let her "join the other offended people at the table," after Denson speculated that some absentee ballots may have been lost or destroyed.

The mood was lighter during the actual counting.

The sunny Saturday spent gazing at chads inside an office park building prompted a few joking comparisons to the canvassing boards of South Florida during November's hotly contested presidential election.

But things seemed to go more smoothly for the St. Petersburg board. The two teams of two people each counted ballots at a rate of 10 or 12 per minute. Kriseman served as a fifth counter, substituting for any counter who needed to eat lunch or take a restroom break.

At one point, Canvassing Board Chairwoman Rene Flowers wondered aloud why the task had seemed so hard in November.

For one thing, there were fewer ballots in play Saturday. For another, Clark's office had pounded into voters the proper way to vote, including having them make sure the small squares of paper were completely detached from the holes they punched.

Still, the Canvassing Board saw a few partially punched holes. They counted them as votes as long as it was the only mark on the ballot and at least one corner was detached. The board also saw several so-called "overvotes," including one card where the voter punched holes for four mayoral candidates.

Member Jay Lasita called that card a "mega overvote." Overvote ballots were not counted.

"It was deja vu," Foster said of gazing through holes in the cards as he remembered watching others do the same in November. He said this election showed punch card elections can be highly accurate if enough care is taken.

"The supervisor of elections did a great job educating the public," he said.

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