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A rough week for elections supervisors

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 2000


Know this: You did not want to be Deborah Clark this week.

That was apparent upon entering the parking lot at the county elections office Thursday. There were five TV satellite trucks idling outside, waiting to broadcast results of the Pinellas presidential ballot recount.

Inside, the place was swarming not only with reporters full of questions, but party activists and lawyers. Everyone had a cell phone and an agenda.

Clark, Pinellas' supervisor of elections, stood before them and explained how her office fouled up the tally. She reported a net gain of 478 votes for Al Gore.

Discussing how some absentees were counted twice and others not at all certainly was not the crowning moment of her career.

As the world watched the recounts in Florida, Clark measured her words and actions, knowing that the outcome of one of the closest presidential elections in history could hinge on the professionalism with which she conducted her office.

Carrying a calculator and a perpetually patient demeanor, she answered one question after another, never appearing annoyed despite the 14-hour days and a persistent case of bronchitis.

She was apologetic, but philosophical about errors that resulted in the second-largest vote jump for Gore after the state's 67 counties recounted ballots.

"We do make mistakes," she said. "If we didn't make mistakes, there wouldn't be recounts."

Before you hammer Clark, remember that she, as well as many other supervisors in the Tampa Bay area, are working with the voting technology that put Jimmy Carter in the White House.

Think about it: You essentially use sticks to poke holes in cards, which are locked in boxes that then are driven to a central counting place. People load the cards into counting machines.

Truth is, it's a system that is rife with opportunities for human error. But it also has many backstops. The trouble for all of us, as we watch the statewide presidential vote margin inch down, up and down again, is that it's not a fast system, and it surely was not designed to handle a race as incredibly close as this one.

Speed, Clark said, shouldn't be the goal.

"I think accurate results are more important than fast results," Clark said.

So Clark dealt with exasperated politicos who sweated and fretted about the results. At one point Thursday, she paused and pulled down her reading glasses: MSNBC was discussing the Pinellas vote and how it had changed. Probably not how any of us would like to have our work immortalized.

But look at the bright side: She could be the Palm Beach County supervisor.

Just imagine having that disaster unfold in your front yard. It's not unlike being at the epicenter of an earthquake.

Everyone from elections officials to national political party lawyers are criticizing the layout of the ballot Theresa LePore issued. Even the Rev. Jesse Jackson flew in to speak to an agitated crowd of protesters demanding another election.

Forgive the Palm Beach supervisor if she appears a little shell-shocked. The position isn't one that typically generates a whole lot of political heat and light.

You can bet that will change. This election will provide grist for voting technology debates across the state and likely will make subsequent supervisor of elections races a little more interesting.

Clark, however, had a little practice at controversy in recent months. She won her first term in September after a nasty race against fellow Republican Pat Baker.

Though she had been a 23-year employee of the office, it wasn't until her close friend and boss Dot Ruggles died that she decided to run for the top job -- a decision that gives her pause for reflection but is not one she regrets.

"As you know, this has been an unusual year for me," said Clark, a woman of faith. "I know that God does not give you more than you can handle, but I've had to remind him that he's getting close."

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