TAMPA — As problems plagued election day in Hillsborough County, Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson was locked in his own too-close-to-call race for re-election.
With about 70 percent of precincts counted around 12:20 a.m. Wednesday, Johnson had a lead of a few hundred votes over challenger Phyllis Busansky.
Johnson was nowhere to be found most of Tuesday night while election workers struggled with vote counting machines long after ballots had been counted throughout the state.
His chief of staff and general counsel, Kathy Harris, also avoided reporters and voters watching the count most of the night.
At 10:45 p.m., canvassing board member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin White finally announced that plans to transmit vote tallies from remote sites had been scrapped, and machines would be brought to the Election Services Center to count votes.
Johnson, a Republican, finally spoke to reporters at 11:35 p.m., saying it "was absolutely astounding" how well the election went.
He declined to answer questions about the election or comment on his race.
"What can you say?" asked his challenger, Phyllis Busansky, a 71-year-old Democrat and former county commissioner. "It's a mess. I'm looking forward to cleaning it up and making it right."
She and supporters — including Tampa City Council members Linda Saul-Sena and Gwen Miller, former state Sen. Les Miller, Hillsborough School Board members Susan Valdes and April Griffin and La Gaceta publisher Patrick Manteiga — huddled around a laptop to watch election returns at the Spain Restaurant in downtown Tampa. Results trickled in, and then at 9:08 p.m., with the race neck and neck, the updates stopped. Another hour passed before new results were posted on the county elections Web site.
Busansky said she didn't want to focus on her opponent's performance; she just wanted to get to the end of the race and win.
Her supporters weren't as forgiving.
"Thirty percent (of precincts reported) and what time is it," asked supporter Jonathan Kaplan. "10:30? That's absurd."
"It's been this number for an hour now," said Busansky's husband, Sheldon. "The system has shut down. And people vote for him. It's just amazing to me."
Tuesday wasn't the first time Johnson presided over an election with technical difficulties. In the 2004 primary, the Sequoia vote tabulating machines slowed to a crawl, delaying final counts until almost dawn the day after Election Day.
The count during the August primary, when only 66,150 people cast ballots, also was slower than other counties. Johnson blamed Premier Election Systems, the company that sold the county its new $5.8-million voting system. As of late August, the county had paid Premier about $4-million. The contract calls for full payment to be made after Premier provides staff support in the general election.
Hillsborough surpassed every county in Florida for the most complaints registered with the Election Protection Coalition's Our Vote Live Web site.
Clerks at precincts confirmed that Hillsborough poll workers failed to give hundreds of voters the second page of their ballots early Tuesday. Meanwhile, hundreds of student voters at the University of South Florida waited for hours for access to a small polling place with room for only a handful of voting booths.
"What is his problem?" Griffin asked. "It's really frustrating. It's hard to get through the night when you don't know where your candidates stand."
"If anybody needed evidence there's a problem with the supervisor of elections," said Busansky supporter Luanne Panacek, executive director of the Children's Board of Hillsborough County. "For crying out loud."