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Senate race absent from local absentee ballots  (FL)

Doug Sword    Sarasota Herald Tribune   22 October 2008

Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent is apologizing to some voters for an error on absentee ballots, and sending out new ballots with a letter explaining the gaffe.

Dent says the State Senate District 23 race between Republican Nancy Detert and Democrat Morgan Bentley was left off some absentee ballots.

“This brings a whole new meaning to secret ballot,” Detert said.

Both campaigns said they had not been informed by Dent’s office of the problem and want to know how extensive it is. Dent’s office creates numerous versions of voting ballots because of district voting lines. For instance, voters in the north part of the county are represented by a different state representative than those in other parts of the county.

Since voters in different areas of the county receive different ballots, the campaigns were wondering exactly which precincts did not contain their race on absentee ballots. In particular, Bentley’s campaign is wondering if the precincts affected were more likely to vote for Democrats or Republicans.

Scott Farrington, the assistant supervisor of elections, says the omission of the Bentley-Detert race was restricted to a portion of one precinct near North Port. That portion of Precinct 104 has 266 registered voters, of which 69 had been sent absentee ballots. Forty of those voters have returned their ballots and will have to send in the new ballot sent by Dent's office to vote in the Senate race.

Levko Klos, a registered Republican running with no party affiliation against Dent in the Nov. 4 election, noted that during the 2006 election when there were 18,000 undervotes in the congressional election that Dent did not initially reveal the full extent of problems with voting machines. That makes him skeptical of her office's estimate on the extent of this problem, he said.

"How did they determine it was only 69?" he asked. "We’re supposed to believe them? Give me a break."

“This happens I don’t want to say all the time, not frequently, but not infrequently either,” said Doug Chapin, election expert at the Pew Center on the States, a charitable trust that studies elections. Names are left off or names are misspelled” and then elections officials scramble to correct the problem, he said.

While unfamiliar with Florida law, there have been instances in other states where there was an error on an absentee ballot and a second ballot was sent out to replace the first, he said.

When Chapin was at an event in Sarasota this spring, he predicted difficulties for elections offices in Florida because of the switch from touchscreen ballots to a new paper ballot fed through an optical scanner.

“It’s incumbent on Kathy Dent to rectify the situation,” said Jonas Courey, Bentley’s campaign manager. A letter explaining the problem was sent to to individual voters on Monday and is arriving in mailboxes today.

Detert said her solution would be to mail out a new ballot to those voters who received an incomplete one.

“But that’s just me making up the rules,” she said, noting that election law would dictate the remedy to the error. Detert said she had noticed her race was not included in the sample ballot she received and that a supporter had called her complaining about the omission.

The letter does not say how widespread the problem is. Dent’s office had received more than 52,000 requests for absentee ballots as of the end of last week. With the letter is enclosed a new absentee ballot that is complete, according to the letter.

Dent, whose office designed a touchscreen ballot that confused some voters and was likely a factor in the 18,000 undervotes in 2006, is running for re-election against Democrat Barry Sullivan and Klos.

Sullivan criticized Dent for paying more attention to getting her name before the voters than Detert’s or Bentley’s.

“She’s got her name on the sample ballot eight times,” he said referring to Dent’s name appearing on envelopes, letterheads and ballots mailed to voters.

“Obviously, I am disappointed that this happened,” he said. “As I stated earlier in this county specificially we needed things to run smoothly so we could restore peoples’ confidence in the elections office.

Farrington said he could not respond to comments made by Dent's political opponents. He confirmed that Dent's office had not put out a press release about the problem. He noted that Detert had been informed of the ballot issue and that Bentley's office was being contacted.

Dent could not be reached for comment.

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