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Some voters are mailed incomplete ballots   (FL)

Doug Sword & Todd Ruger   Sarasota Herald-Tribune   23 October 2008

Erroneous absentee ballots have been sent to 69 North Port voters, a gaffe that came to light 13 days before Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent stands for re-election.
Dent’s opponents cast the mistake as the latest example of the county’s election problems, the most notable one being the controversial congressional election in 2006 that made Sarasota County a national symbol for problems with touch-screen voting systems.

While the problem became public Wednesday, Dent said she and her staff discovered 11 days earlier that the race for state Senate District 23 between Morgan Bentley and Nancy Detert had been left off some absentee ballots. Dent points out that on Oct. 14 she told the three-member board that will oversee this election about a programming error that was causing problems with ballots.

Two of the board members, Judge Kimberly Bonner and Sarasota Clerk Billy Robinson, said Dent did not disclose that the error led to erroneous ballots being sent to voters.

When asked for a comment about the problem early Wednesday, the campaigns for both Senate candidates were unaware that Detert and Bentley had been left off some ballots.

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

The mistake was limited to a portion of Precinct 104 in North Port. In all, 69 erroneous ballots were sent to voters and 40 of those have been filled out and returned.

Dent’s office creates numerous versions of voting ballots because of district voting lines. In this case, part of Precinct 104 will vote in the House District 70 race while most will vote in the House District 71 race. Dent said her staff did not catch the error that the Senate race had been ped from ballots for the part of Precinct 104 that votes in the District 70 race.

Dent sent a letter to each of the voters, apologizing for the error. She also sent a corrected ballot. If they had not yet voted, voters were told to use the new ballot and discard the old one. Voters who had already sent in ballots were told that they should complete the new ballot, send it in, and that it would replace the erroneous ballot.

Scott Farrington, the assistant supervisor of elections, says that solution was arrived at in consultation with the Florida Division of Elections office.

“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.

Last week, Polk County was the one scrambling after it sent out about 40,000 absentee ballots that did not include a nonpartisan statewide question. The county is sending out corrected ballots to those voters.

The error by Dent’s office gave momentum to criticisms by political opponents, who have based their campaigns largely on Dent’s handling of the 2006 election in the 13th Congressional District. Investigations cleared the county’s touch-screen voting machines as the cause for 18,000 voters failing to vote in the congressional race that U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, won by 369 votes.

But the ballot designed by Dent’s office was blamed by many as a key reason so many skipped that race, and Dent’s opponents were quick to jump on this new ballot design issue.

Democrat Barry Sullivan and Levko Klos, a registered Republican who is running without the GOP’s backing, both described the error as the latest in a series made by Dent. Those include a malfunction that led to election results being tabulated on an office calculator in January and a problem with tabulation software for the August primary.

Klos criticized Dent for downplaying past mistakes and said time would likely reveal that more than 69 voters were impacted by the absentee ballot problem.

Dent countered that every one of the more than 52,000 requests for absentee ballots for the Nov. 4 election is logged and that she is certain the mistake is limited to 69 ballots.

“It just shows their naivete,” she said of the criticisms. “I wish either one of the two could walk a mile in my shoes.”

It comes as no surprise that Dent’s political opponents are criticizing her, said Eric Robinson, chairman of the Republican Party of Sarasota County.

“Barry Sullivan and Levko are jumping up and down like it's a huge deal and it’s half of one precinct,” he said. “You do 300,000, you get 40 wrong; that’s not that bad in my book.”

He also dismissed criticism that Dent should have made the error public earlier.

“Every level of government if they had to have a press conference every time they made a mistake, there’d be gridlock.”

Klos says that this do-over approach will lead to some voters voting differently on the second ballot. That is unfair to the other candidates and the only way to be fair is to hold a special election for state Senate District 23, he said.

Klos said that during the 2006 election, 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.

Sullivan said Dent paid 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. “... We needed things to run smoothly so we could restore people’s confidence in the elections office.”

When the canvassing board that oversees elections met Oct. 14 they were told by Farrington “that because of an election coding (manual input) error in the Global Election Management System (GEMS), one extra ballot style was created for the November 4 election,” according to a record of the meeting.

But the impact on absentee voters was not mentioned, said canvassing board member Billy Robinson.

“We were not told the latter part of that, that it led to erroneous absentee ballots being sent out,” he said.

Dent appears to be taking the steps necessary to correct the problem, Robinson said, but added: “I think the canvassing board probably should have been aware that the ballots had gone out.”

Dent told the board about the computer error because it could affect testing of voting equipment used at polling stations, but it would not affect equipment used at early-voting sites. That was the important information to convey, said board member Bonner, since early voting started Monday. The board decided to postpone testing of polling place equipment until a special meeting called for Oct. 27.

Despite her plan to address the problem, Dent expressed qualms. “We’ll hope and pray there’s more than a difference of” a few dozen votes, she said. “We’re doing everything in our power.”

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