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Some black voters fault poll workers

The supervisor of elections says she thinks the voting went well but promises to look into isolated complaints.

By WAYNE WASHINGTON and DAVID KARP

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 2000


TAMPA -- It was about two weeks before the election, and Donald Ball Sr. had not received his voter registration card.

Ball, 50, called the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections office and was told to go to the polls without the card, his wife, Velma, said Friday.

When he got to Precinct 603 on Tuesday, he was told his name wasn't on the register. A clerk tried to call the main office to check his record, but couldn't get through. Thirty minutes passed. Then another 45 minutes.

"Everyone was getting very angry," Mrs. Ball said. "After about an hour, we just gave up."

She's angry her husband didn't get to vote.

"That is very wrong," Mrs. Ball said. "We fought for that right. They denied him the vote."

With the world's magnifying glass trained on the microscopic margin between George W. Bush and Al Gore in Florida, every vote in every county is being scrutinized. And some voters in Hillsborough County, particularly black voters like the Balls, say they were treated rudely at the polls, rushed, given faulty ballots or forced to endure long waits as election officials checked to see whether they were eligible to vote.

NAACP officials are looking into complaints in Hillsborough and across the state. The civil rights organization is meeting in Miami today to allow voters to voice their concerns. Local NAACP officials plan to take Tampa voters to Miami by bus this morning.

Hillsborough's supervisor of elections, Pam Iorio, doesn't think there were countywide problems. On Friday, she praised the more than 3,000 poll workers who worked a busy Election Day, and she promised to look into isolated complaints.

"Actually, I think our office came out very well," Iorio said. "They had a chart (in the paper) with trouble spots across the state. I didn't see Hillsborough in the chart."

When compared with the large vote shifts in other counties, far fewer votes changed in Hillsborough after ballots were recounted on Wednesday. And some Tampa civil rights leaders said their own voting experiences went smoothly.

"When I voted, everything was in order," said Bob Saunders, former head of the NAACP in Florida.

Still, the problems in Palm Beach County and the small percentage of votes that separate Gore and Bush have fed concerns among some blacks in Hillsborough that there was a silent and widespread effort to limit black voting. Past elections have shown that blacks overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, are Republicans.

With so much at stake, irregularities that might be overlooked in another election have been magnified this time.

Natalie Carnegie, who lives near the University of South Florida, wasn't certain she voted for the person she wanted to because the ballot wouldn't line up in the ballot holder. In a Tampa office of the NAACP on Friday, she wondered how many others had the same problem.

One of Carnegie's friends, Brenda Wade, said a poll worker gave her a ballot that had already been punched. She asked for and received another ballot, she said. But she said she did not see what happened to the one that was punched.

Barbers in the shop across the street from a polling place in College Hill say customers have told them they were not allowed to vote or were sent to other polling places.

And then there's the rumor about deputies from the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office stopping black voters in Progress Village.

Sheriff's Office spokesman Debbie Carter called the rumor false, but it's easy to imagine how it got started.

A house close to Precinct 965 at the Progress Village Civic Center had been burglarized Tuesday, and deputies were there investigating. One felon who had been turned away at the polls flagged down a deputy to report what had happened, Carter said.

Watching nearby was Stacy Powers, news director for WTMP-AM 1150, which was broadcasting from precincts Tuesday.

Powers said she saw two deputies ask an older citizen who had already voted for some identification. Fearing the deputies, she did not ask what was happening.

But Powers told the mostly black listeners of the station about the deputies in Progress Village.

The broadcast infuriated Democrats such as union leader Gerald White, but Powers said she felt a responsibility to report what she saw, even though she had not interviewed the deputies or the resident.

By Wednesday, the phone lines at WTMP were lit up with callers. Some had heard rumors about deputies stopping black citizens at Progress Village.

Powers said she has received calls from feminist Gloria Steinem and Democratic Party officials who told her former Secretary of State and Gore emissary Warren Christopher was trying to reach her.

Even if no complaints are verified, the perception of a problematic election could prove painful to Iorio, a Democrat who easily won re-election Tuesday and who is often mentioned as a candidate for Tampa mayor.

"I am not voting for her," said Velma Ball. "I think someone needs to stand up and take responsibility for this."

Iorio said she thinks most voters will judge her office favorably, despite a few problems. She doesn't think she personally will get blamed for the extraordinary closeness of Florida's presidential election or more serious problems elsewhere.

"I don't think the people in Hillsborough County would think that way," Iorio said.

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