Monday, February 19, 2018
News Roundup

Robocall company blames Pinellas elections officials for botched Election Day calls

When robocalls from the Pinellas elections office mistakenly told thousands of people Tuesday that they had an extra day to vote, elections supervisor Deborah Clark pointed the finger at a California-based vendor she hired to make the calls.

The robocall company was supposed to finish the calls Monday, telling people in a recorded message that they had until "tomorrow'' to vote, Clark said.

Instead, she said, CallFire Inc. of Santa Monica made more than 12,000 calls on Election Day, so that "tomorrow" reference implied that people could still vote or turn in absentee ballots on Wednesday.

"We used a vendor to do this. The vendor was supposed to finish the calls" on Monday, Clark told the Tampa Bay Times on Tuesday. "What the vendor did this morning (Tuesday) was go ahead and complete the calls without consulting us, using the script from yesterday."

That's simply not true, CallFire CEO Dinesh Ravishanker said Wednesday. He said he checked the Pinellas account and found that both the recorded message and the calls were completely controlled by someone in the elections office, who launched the calls manually.

Someone from the elections office logged into the company's website at 4:30 p.m. Monday and uploaded the message and a list of absentee voters who had not yet turned in their ballots, Ravishanker said.

Someone in the office then stopped the calls at 8 p.m. Monday and restarted them at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, he said.

"In the last few days, we have sent out about 10 million calls,'' he said. "The only problem we had like this was in Pinellas County, because of human error.''

This conflicts with Clark's account Tuesday. She said her office IT manager found out Tuesday morning that the Monday calls were incomplete, she said. "He was looking at a spreadsheet for the calls … and realized (the vendor) had not completed them.''

CallFire then launched Tuesday's calls on its own, she said. Elections office spokeswoman Nancy Whitlock said Tuesday that CallFire was supposed to make 27,917 calls but 12,525 were still in a "queue" as of Tuesday morning.

Ravishanker denied that.

"There was no technical glitch with the CallFire system. There was no 'queue,' " he said. "The user in question manually started and stopped the campaign on both days. It is the user's responsibility to manage all recorded messages."

Furthermore, he said, clients can ask for extra calling capacity at no extra charge. If Pinellas could not get its messages out on time, it could have asked for more phone lines.

Clark did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails Wednesday to clear up the discrepancy.

This was the first time the county had hired CallFire, Whitlock said. The county paid $3,229.88 for the service.

It's not clear whether the robocalls caused any real confusion or missed votes. When complaints began pouring in, the elections office scrambled to send out a new call to correct the mistake.

But with the Twitter universe and blogosphere poised to jump on any hint of voter suppression, the Pinellas miscue caused an immediate nationwide stir. Many news services highlighted the robocalls in stories about Election Day problems. Salon.com rated it the nation's biggest screwup.

There was no hint that the errant calls disadvantaged one party over the other. Party affiliation was not on the call list, Whitlock said. CallFire is known for working closely with Democrats who want telephone surveys.

But the calls do represent a black eye for Clark.

Since she took over 12 years ago, Clark has experienced several election problems. Some 1,400 ballots were uncounted and 900 double counted in 2000. A box of uncounted absentee ballots was found in 2004. In 2006, computers froze because they lacked enough hard drive capacity, delaying returns for two hours.

And in this August's primary, an equipment failure cut communications between precincts and the central office, forcing poll workers to drive results in.

On Tuesday, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat, sent out a Twitter message saying Clark, a Republican, should be "fired'' by voters. Buckhorn stuck by that sentiment Wednesday.

"When your primary job is to show up on Election Day and do it right, you've got to do it right," Buckhorn said. "There is no excuse for not performing on the one day that matters."

Buckhorn denied he was sticking his nose into Pinellas business.

"It could have affected the outcome of the election in Pinellas, which could have affected the outcome in the state of Florida,'' he said. "It's just inexcusable.''

Newly elected Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning, a Republican, defended Clark. As a former Pasco elections supervisor, he had a reputation for running smooth elections. He also served as secretary of state, Florida's chief elections officer.

Glitches are to be expected in any elections office, Browning said.

"I know Deb. She is probably dying 1,000 deaths over (the robocalls),'' Browning said. "But I know it wasn't intentional.''

Staff writers Rick Danielson and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

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