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Presidential wranglers reach out to Pinellas elections chief

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000


Deborah Clark's life these days can be summed up like this: Cold pizza and subpoenas.

The Pinellas County supervisor of elections still was cleaning up after the election that wouldn't go away Thursday when she learned that she would be called to Tallahassee next week.

She was told she would be subpoenaed to testify in a lawsuit alleging Seminole County absentee ballot requests were mishandled.

That was about the time she also found out that lawyers for presidential candidate George W. Bush were trying to have Pinellas ballots shipped up to the state capital, a la Palm Beach County ballots, for legal proceedings. A judge on Friday refused that request.

Why, all of a sudden, are Republican lawyers taking such interest in Pinellas?

"Just lucky, I guess," Clark said dryly as she gratefully accepted cold pizza, a late afternoon attempt at lunch, from a co-worker.

By Friday, Clark had spoken to lawyers in the Seminole County case who said they planned to subpoena her in a case that is scheduled to be heard Wednesday in Leon Circuit Court.

It centers on the actions of Sandra Goard, a Republican elections supervisor, and whether the access she allowed Republican party members in altering absentee ballot applications affected the outcome of the election.

Clark said lawyers for Goard told her she was being called to Tallahassee to talk about how Pinellas handled such situations: meaning, if an application came in without a voter ID number, what did they do?

For the record, Clark said her office filled in the number themselves. Apparently, that was accepted practice among supervisors this election cycle as they struggled to deal with a record number of absentee ballots and reforms that asked voters to jump through hoops that had not previously existed. Clark and other supervisors have said they have tried to include, rather than exclude, voters.

"What we do is, if the request has the other information requested and they've signed the request and we have their signature on file, then we go ahead and fill the request," Clark said.

In Seminole County, it went differently. Republican party operatives were allowed to set up shop in a back room -- unsupervised -- and alter the absentee ballot requests.

Clark, who also is a Republican, sees a world of difference in how she handled the requests versus what her counterpart did in Seminole. "I wouldn't be comfortable allowing somebody to come in and alter the records," she said. "Something, once we've received it, is a public record."

There is a certain sanctity, she said, to public records and maintaining them without alteration.

And what does Clark think about an episode in Martin County, where Republicans were allowed not only to alter the requests, but take them from the supervisor's office?

"Even less," she said. "I definitely wouldn't allow it."

Clark's position, it seems, would not be helpful to a supervisor who gave outsiders quite a bit more latitude.

Which makes you wonder what the lawyers representing Goard think they're going to accomplish by calling to Tallahassee the Pinellas supervisor. And the Orange County supervisor. And the Brevard County supervisor. And the Hillsborough County supervisor and 10 others.

How are they all going to testify in a trial, chock full of other witnesses, that is supposed to finish in one day?

Granted it is a witness list, and typically such lists hold lots of names of people who are never called to testify.

But it has to make you wonder just what the lawyers for the Seminole supervisor, Bush, and others are trying to accomplish. It couldn't be that they're trying to stall the legal process and throw to the Republican-dominated state Legislature the task of choosing Florida's slate of electors, could it?

Granted, that's a cynical view, but it has become an increasingly cynical process.

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