St. Petersburg Times Online: Election 2000
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So much to count, so little time

Hillsborough's elections supervisor says balky machines and starting too late contributed to the tardiness of vote tallies.

By WAYNE WASHINGTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 9, 2000


TAMPA -- It seemed like a simple, easy call in June when Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Pam Iorio decided to start counting absentee ballots at 4 p.m. on Election Day.

Starting that late would give members of a local canvassing board time to finish up an abbreviated workday and oversee the ballot counting, as required by law.

But a combination of factors Tuesday night had local news media scrambling to get results from an empty-handed elections office. The first results weren't posted for almost two hours after polls closed. Television stations posted zeros where they expected to tell viewers who was winning what. Newspapers rolled off presses with incomplete results. And curious candidates endured an agonizing wait.

Amidst a scrambling staff Tuesday night, Iorio said she was sorry initial results were slow to come in. On Wednesday, Iorio praised her staff for their hard work and commitment but acknowledged that getting started so late was a mistake.

"In hindsight, we should have started at noon," she said.

Iorio's staff had to count 39,000 absentee ballots and verify their counts by running them through mechanical card readers.

Three of the county's 10 card readers, which are 25 years old, broke down. Meanwhile, ballots from across the county started rolling in.

With voter turnout at 74 percent, candidates and their supporters -- reporters and elections officials, too -- were in for a long night.

"It was very frustrating last night," Iorio said.

Iorio, a Democrat, won a third straight term to continue as elections supervisor. She trounced Republican Joe Robinson by an almost 2-to-1 ratio.

Iorio has promised to work to modernize the office so ballots can be counted faster and more accurately.

Tuesday's experience shows there's a long way to go.

Despite the vast array of technology available to count ballots, Iorio still has poll workers count them by hand.

Iorio is looking into ways to get the county a computerized voting system, but the costs are steep.

One system, which has not yet been approved for use in Florida, would allow voters to cast their ballots by touching a computer screen. Another system would require voters to fill out a ballot in much the same way students darken bubbles on standardized tests. Both systems would cost between $8-million and $12-million, Iorio said.

The county would have to cover the cost, and County Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank said the matter needs careful study.

"We have to understand what the alternatives are," she said. "I want to know what's out there that's better than what we've got now."

Hillsborough's current method of vote counting relies heavily on the speed and diligence of individual poll workers.

After all the ballots have been cast and the polling place has closed, poll workers break into teams of two and begin counting the ballots in stacks of 10.

Once the ballots are counted, they are placed in a box, labeled and driven to one of four drop-off points in the county by two poll workers of opposite political affiliation.

The ballots are then transported to the supervisor of elections' processing center on Falkenburg Road, where they are unloaded.

Staffers there examine the ballots for write-in candidates and put them through the card reader. The card reader tabulates the votes, and workers check to make sure the machine total matches the total poll workers arrived at.

On Tuesday night, the machines slowed the counting to a crawl.

"The cards kept getting stopped, stopped, stopped," Iorio said.

Eventually, staffers decided to stop using three of the machines and to rely on the seven that were working properly.

After the ballots are counted by the card-reading machines, they are verified one final time by staffers who check the math of poll workers if errors are found.

It's a long, tedious process.

Elections officials didn't finish until 3:10 a.m., exactly 11 minutes later than the elections office closed after the 1996 presidential election.

Iorio got home at 5 a.m. and returned to Falkenburg Road an hour later.

With the vote margin between George W. Bush and Al Gore razor-close, the Florida State Department had ordered a recount.

- Wayne Washington can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or washington@sptimes.com.

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