Thursday, January 18, 2018
News Roundup

Mystery deepens over botched Election Day robocalls in Pinellas County

LARGO — The mystery of Pinellas County's confusing Election Day robocalls deepened Thursday as elections supervisor Deborah Clark reiterated via a news release that her office was not to blame.

But then she refused to discuss any details about what did happen.

It was the second day Clark refused to answer questions about the robocalls. Instead, she dribbled out three sporadic and incomplete written statements.

The California company she hired to send out the calls — CallFire Inc. — also failed to respond to repeated requests for comment Thursday.

Clark had blamed CallFire for the fiasco on Tuesday night. On Wednesday, CallFire's CEO fired back that Clark's office had initiated the calls.

On Thursday, both refused to answer questions.

The calls first went out to voters on Monday, saying they had until "tomorrow" to cast their ballots. It targeted people who had requested absentee ballots but not yet sent them back.

That message was fine on Monday. But then the same call went out to thousands of people Tuesday morning — an obvious mistake because, by then, "tomorrow" meant Wednesday, the day after the election.

On election night, Clark told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that CallFire was to blame.

"We used a vendor to do this," Clark said. "The vendor was supposed to finish the calls yesterday (Monday)."

The office IT manager discovered Tuesday morning that some calls were never sent, she said.

"He was looking at a spreadsheet for the calls when he came in this morning, and realized they had not completed them. What the vendor did this morning (Tuesday) was go ahead and complete the calls this morning without consulting us, using the script from yesterday."

CallFire CEO Dinesh Ravishanker squarely placed the blame on Clark's office. Pinellas — like other clients — completely controlled both the content of the calls and when they were sent out, he said Wednesday.

CallFire's records show that someone in the elections office signed into the account on the CallFire website at 4:30 p.m. Monday and clicked a button to start the calls, Ravishanker said. Then someone halted the calls at 8 p.m. Monday and started them back up at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday, he said. "Someone in their office logged in and clicked start and made a very bad mistake," Ravishanker said.

News of the botched calls went viral on Election Day, with Salon.com rating it the nation's biggest Election Day blunder.

After Ravishanker made his statement around noon Wednesday, Clark declined to answer further questions and also declined a request early Thursday for a face-to-face interview.

At 1:04 p.m. Thursday — more than 48 hours after the calls went out — Clark's spokeswoman, Nancy Whitlock, issued a two-sentence statement that Clark would not talk "until all of the facts have been gathered."

At 6:20 p.m., Whitlock released a four-paragraph statement. It contained no information about who initiated the calls nor why, and Whitlock told the Times via text message that Clark would answer no further questions Thursday night.

That statement did add a few details.

"At 8:34 a.m. we discovered that all of the calls were not completed on November 5, and the remaining calls had resumed at 8:00 a.m."

The supervisor's office then immediately halted the calls and began sending out new calls to the same voters 22 minutes later, correcting the misinformation, the statement said.

Within three hours, 99 percent of voters who had received the bad call also received the correction.

The statement slightly misstated the content of the initial, erroneous phone calls.

"We used an automated dialing service to initiate a courtesy call to 38,702 Pinellas County voters to remind them that the election was tomorrow and to return their mail ballots by 7 p.m. Election Day," the statement said.

Actually, a script of the calls that Clark's office provided Tuesday told people to return their mail ballots "by 7 p.m. tomorrow," not "by 7 p.m. Election Day."

The statement did not say how many people received the bad message, but said that staffers personally called 46 — or about 1 percent — to inform them of the error. That would indicate that about 4,600 people were initially told they could vote on Wednesday.

The Times previously reported that 12,500 people may have received the erroneous call, but that was based on the number of people on the list who were not called on Monday. Fewer may have received the erroneous call Tuesday if elections officials did indeed stop them quickly.

Pressed by the Times for an opportunity to question Clark directly, Whitlock emailed one last statement at 7:21 p.m. Thursday.

This time, Whitlock reiterated that the elections office did not initiate the confusing Tuesday morning calls.

"We DID NOT restart the calls and did not realize they had resumed at 8 a.m. on November 6," the statement said. "We did not log onto the system until 8:34 a.m., to STOP the calls. We did not want the calls to be made on Election Day."

Left unanswered was what conversations Clark's office has had with CallFire over the last three days.

It is not clear whether the robocalls discouraged or disenfranchised any voters. Whitlock said early Wednesday that the Tuesday morning calls did not give either Democrats or Republicans any particular advantage. The call list did not include party affiliation, she said.

CallFire is known for working with Democratic candidates.

Ravishanker did not return two telephone calls, two emails and a Twitter message Thursday.

At one point, an employee in his office said he was busy with post-election business but would return a call soon.

But he did not.

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