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More missing ballots turn up in Pinellas
Twelve absentee and provisional ballots are discovered days after a box of 268 uncounted absentees was found.
By DAVID KARP, St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
Published November 19, 2004

LARGO - Pinellas election officials said Thursday they had found 12 more uncounted ballots as they dug through boxes in their office this week.

Two uncounted absentee ballots were sitting unopened in a box that was headed to the warehouse for storage. And 10 provisional ballots were sitting in a blue pouch in a loading dock area. No one had noticed they had not been counted.

The discovery of those 12 on Wednesday came two days after an employee found a box with 268 uncounted absentee ballots. The unmarked brown banker's box was sitting in plain sight on an office floor, with papers and other boxes stacked on top of it.

Both discoveries came the week after Pinellas County sent final election results to the state.

Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said she was unaware of the problem because she didn't know that her staff had not performed a standard check to make sure all ballots were accounted for.

"I'm sick about this," Clark said Thursday. "I'll be honest. I feel badly for those voters."

Clark mentioned the 12 additional missing ballots during a canvassing board meeting Thursday to count the newly found votes.

The discoveries were another embarrassment for Clark, who became elections supervisor four years ago.

Since then, Clark's office has mishandled absentee ballots on Election Day three times. In 2000, the office neglected to count about 1,400 absentee ballots on Election Day - and counted another 600 ballots twice. Days later, correcting the error, staff found one uncounted absentee ballot in the office and another regular ballot left in a ballot box.

In 2001, Clark's office misplaced six absentee ballots in a Tarpon Springs city election, which were later found.

In 2002, Clark's staff mislabeled ballots in a race for a Lealman fire commission seat. About 600 voters who should have been able to vote in the race could not; another 700 who weren't entitled to vote were allowed to.

While she acknowledged her mistakes Thursday, Clark also said that the 2002 general election went well overall.

Other elections she worked on as an election office employee for two decades ran smoothly too, she said.

"I think it's important for people to know we take this seriously, and we are very sorry it happened," Clark said.

She asked the county canvassing board to count the missing ballots Thursday, even though they might not be recorded. Clark said it may be illegal for the state to consider the new results, though she had not yet spoken to state officials about the new votes.

Florida's canvassing board closed the books on the 2004 election Sunday.

"I plan to call each voter personally and apologize," Clark said.

The votes tallied Thursday would not have changed the outcome of any race. If the votes were included in state totals, President Bush would still beat John Kerry in Pinellas, but by 69 fewer votes.

Ralph Nader would pick up three votes, and U.S. Senate candidate Betty Castor would gain 92 votes.

"Is the election over?" a television reporter asked Clark on Thursday, 17 days after the Nov. 2 election.

"I certainly hope so," Clark said.

Asked to describe her mood on the job in the midst of controversy, she grinned.

"It's just a blast," she said. "Some days are more fun than I can stand."

The scene at the election office Thursday reminded some of the chaos around the 2000 election. A group of reporters and party activists squeezed into a observation room to watch ballots being counted through a window.

Leonard Schmiege, who formed a group that seeks to test computer codes in Pinellas' voting machines, set a camcorder in the window to record every movement. He had videotapes of other meetings available on DVD, too.

At one point, Gerald Goen, president of the Tarpon Springs Democratic Club, motioned with his hand for Clark to leave the office. She stepped outside, then snapped at him:

"Don't point your finger at me!"

Goen, a critic of Clark, said her handling of the missing absentee ballots troubled him.

"Human error does occur," said Goen's wife, Janet, the Pinellas Democratic state committeewoman, "but I can't imagine a system where they lose an entire box."

Inside the counting room, the canvassing board chairman, County Judge Patrick Caddell, said people outside would never understand how complex the election process is.

"Things happen," Caddell said.

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