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Election office racing clock
Hillsborough's voter registration applications might not be processed by the time early voting begins Monday.
By JEFF TESTERMAN, St. Petersburg Times Published October 12, 2004

TAMPA - Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson has put staffers on 74-hour work weeks, hired a score of $9-an-hour temporary workers and busted his overtime budget to handle a record influx of voter registration applications.

Still, Johnson's staff could be holding as many as 6,000 unprocessed registration forms when early voting begins Oct. 18, his office said Monday.

That could spell inconvenience and waiting for some new voters whose registration data has not been entered into Johnson's computers.

Dan Nolan, Johnson's operations chief and a former Army colonel who served with U.S. Central Command, estimates his staff has processed 8,000 of 20,000 voter registration applications that flooded in as registration closed Oct. 4. Another 12,000 sit in coded yellow envelopes in the elections office mail room.

Nolan traces a computer flow chart of the registration processing. His full-time staff of 29 and the temps had processed 649 registrations by 10:15 a.m. Monday after clocking in at 7. They did 2,027 on Saturday and another 1,500 on Sunday.

"I've asked myself what do I have to deliver on the target to achieve my objective?" said Nolan, a one-time artillery commander in Germany. "I believe we will make it by Monday. The 6,000 (unprocessed) is a most pessimistic estimate, a worst-case scenario."

Elections officials in Pinellas and Pasco counties also have been working overtime to process registration cards but say they do not expect that to delay early voting.

If the worst case occurs in Hillsborough, Johnson said poll workers will take the name of an early voter, then phone the downtown office, where staffers will search through unprocessed applications for a match. If none can be found, the voter may be asked to return later.

If a voter's registration can't be located and he insists on voting, he will be permitted to file a provisional ballot, which will require elections officials to confirm eligibility before the end of voting on Nov. 2.

"We absolutely will offer a provisional ballot," said Johnson. "But I hope we don't have to do that in any great numbers. I think we're in very good shape, given the enormity of the influx we've seen."

Johnson, 52, co-founder of the BuddyFreddys restaurants and a former three-term GOP legislator from Plant City, is running for the election supervisor's job he was appointed to last year.

He points to his leadership qualities in trying to overcome a vote count delayed until nearly dawn after the Aug. 31 primary, and the discovery of 245 votes never tabulated when a machine was left in "test mode" during primary early voting.

"This is a management job," Johnson said Monday. "It's about guiding people. It's about leadership."

The elections office has spent $70,000 more than budgeted so far to handle the deluge of late registrations. Not counting forms processed Monday, 97,728 new voters have registered to vote in Hillsborough this year.

In Pinellas, 590,137 people are registered to vote in November, compared with 574,961 in 2000, said Joan Brock, deputy supervisor of elections.

Why the sudden uptick?

Johnson points to new interest in the presidential race, particularly in the wake of the disputed 2000 election, decided in Florida by a mere 537 votes.

He also credits third-party registration groups such as Acorn (the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and his own office's aggressive attempt to register the estimated 200,000 local residents eligible but unregistered to vote.

"There's a lot of activity out there," Brock said. "It reminds me of 1992 with the Perot, Bush, Clinton election. We had a lot of activity then."

Brock said that on the Oct. 4 deadline, the office collected 9,840 forms from several days of voter registration drives.

Pasco's elections office has about 3,000 applications to process before Oct. 19, when it must report to the state the total count of registered voters.

"We are processing voter registration applications feverishly," Pasco Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning said. "But I'm trying not to compromise accuracy for the sake of timeliness."

Some voters' registration cards could arrive in the mail the weekend before the election, Browning said, although residents can vote by showing other identification.

Last week, part of Johnson's staff was diverted from processing the new registrations to stuffing envelopes with absentee ballots.

Some 3,000 overseas ballots were mailed Saturday. On Monday, the hallways at the downtown elections office were crammed with racks of white postal boxes filled with the absentee ballots for stateside voters.

Johnson said he expects all 43,000 of those ballots to be mailed before Wednesday.

The absentee and new registration tasks are being juggled simultaneously in part because Sequoia Voting Systems, manufacturer of touch screen voting machines, was late in delivering ballots to elections offices in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Palm Beach and Indian River Counties, according to Sequoia.

Not every registration application has been accepted.

Since Oct. 4, as many as 124 of the registrations a day have been denied, Nolan said. Most were rejected because the applicant was not 18, was not an American citizen or had a felony conviction without restoration of civil rights.

Some appeared to be fraudulent. One application, in the name of "Rico Suave," used the name of a character in a risque song by Latin hip-hop artist Gerardo Mejia.

"I looked that one up myself," Nolan said. "We couldn't find any evidence of a Rico Suave living in this area."

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