Human error slows vote count

Vote counting suffers a two-hour delay because of a technician's mistake.


By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer

Published March 9, 2006


CLEARWARTER - Pinellas County elections chief Deborah Clark has presided over a spate of embarrassing gaffes over the past six years.


Things looked good for Clark as polls closed Tuesday in three municipal races. But a poor estimate by a technician brought the counting to a halt and again subjected Clark to scrutiny.


A computer server at the elections office froze at 8:38 p.m. Results in Pinellas Park's races were in, but in Palm Harbor votes from only 4 of 22 precincts had been tallied; in Largo, 21 of 38.


After consulting with Sequoia Voting Systems, the county's voting technology supplier, the problem was fixed. At 10:18 p.m., the count began again. Complete results were ready 18 minutes later.


The two-hour delay grated on fretful election watchers and candidates.


"It's maddening," Pat Gerard said as she waited for returns. Gerard, a Largo city commissioner, took the mayor's seat from Bob Jackson Tuesday night.


Some see the delay as further evidence that Clark, the Republican elections supervisor since 2000, needs to improve.


"We have to do better than this," said Carrie Wadlinger, Pinellas Democratic chairwoman. "When something like this happens, voter confidence goes down a notch."


Republican County Commissioner Bob Stewart had a similar reaction. "Any time there is a delay in the elections process it's cause for concern," Stewart said. "It leads to suspicion and doubt."


Past problems heightened the concern.


In 2000, Clark's office failed to count 1,400 ballots; another 900 were counted twice. In 2004, wrong results on two referenda were sent to state officials. And last November, nearly 60 St. Petersburg voters were mailed ballots for a Belleair election.


Tuesday's misstep can be traced to mid-February, when Jim Armstrong set aside hard drive space on a computer server that tabulates and store votes. Armstrong, Clark's information technology administrator, reserved 530 megabytes, but needed 588.


Armstrong has worked with the Sequoia system, bought in 2001 for $14- million, for four years. He used past elections to estimate reserved space.


It's not the kind of problem that can be picked up by routine testing, which does not involve the volume of data created in an actual election.


Clark, 57, has no plans to reprimand Armstrong and said Tuesday's trouble cannot be compared to earlier problems that have occurred on her watch.


"We do our very best," Clark said. "But we are human beings and once in a while we make an error. It was an honest mistake."


Kurt Browning, Pasco County's highly regarded supervisor of elections, stood by Clark.


"People expect perfection," he said. "It isn't going to happen."


Browning, however, said it was "inane" and "crazy" to have reserve space on a hard drive to preserve results. Pasco's technology does not require it.


Pinellas plans an upgrade by September's primary elections to allow hard drive space to expand as election data are tabulated. That means no more estimating and no repeats of Tuesday night.


But the delay was not the only trouble.


At a Pinellas Park voting precinct in the morning, and later in the day at a precinct in Largo, voters reported that touch screen machines were faulty. When a voter selected one candidate, the machine would put a check next to another candidate's name.


That can happen to touch screens, which need to be calibrated regularly, said Michelle Shafer, a Sequoia spokeswoman. Simple handling of the machines rarely causes calibration problems, but repeated use does, she said.


Alarmed voters sought help and were shown how to change their choices. Before a final vote is cast, a review page gives voters another chance to make sure their choices are recorded correctly.


All machines were checked before they were used, Clark said, and she is confident that any voter who reported problems had their ballots counted correctly. The integrity of the election, she said, was not compromised.


Browning said with the new touch screen technology, voters have some added responsibility.


"They need to let the election officials know there is a problem," he said.


County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan was at the elections office Tuesday as a member of Pinellas' canvassing board.


"I felt very comfortable that everything was being handled properly," he said.


Tony DiMatteo, Pinellas Republican chairman, said he has the utmost confidence in Clark and played down the problems. "Elections don't have to be perfect," he said. "They have to be accurate."


The votes were recounted Wednesday morning, confirming the results from the night before.


"To me, this was human error," Clark said Wednesday. "We recovered from it last night, and we got accurate results last night."


Will Van Sant can be reached at 445-4166 or


[Last modified March 9, 2006, 02:45:12]