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1,117 absentee ballots for House race are lost

CLEARWATER — Just nine days before the primary election, the U.S. Postal Service has lost more than 1,100 absentee ballots for the state House District 55 race.

Pinellas elections officials said they delivered the 1,117 ballots to the Clearwater Bulk Mail Unit on Monday.

Postal officials confirmed the ballots were received but say they have no record of what happened to them after that.

The mishap has alarmed local political leaders.

"My concern is, if there is something nefarious going on how are we going to fix it?" said Toni Molinaro, chairwoman of the Pinellas County Democratic Executive Committee. "The worst case scenario is that someone took them and is going to do something fraudulent with them."

Elections officials say there is no need to worry. The ballots, originally sent to voters who requested them, were resent to the same voters on Friday by priority mail.

As per state law, officials said they will compare signatures on the ballot with signatures on file.

"If the signature doesn't match, the canvassing board will take a look it," said Nancy Whitlock, spokeswoman for the Pinellas elections office.

Any voter receiving two ballots should return only one, Whitlock said. Only the first ballot received by the elections office will be counted.

Ballots for civilians living overseas, and for military personnel in the U.S. and abroad, were mailed separately and were not affected.

The post office is investigating the mishap.

"We have every confidence that we are going to see that mail," said Gary Sawtelle, a spokesman for the U.S. post office in Tampa. "If it was misdirected for whatever reason it will find its way back here, where it would ultimately be delivered to the addressee or it would be returned to the sender."

The House District 55 seat has been open since former Rep. Frank Peterman was appointed to head the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

The Democrats in the race are attorney Darryl Rouson, St. Petersburg City Council member Earnest Williams and educator Charles McKenzie. The primary is March 25.

No Republicans entered the race.

Completed ballots must be received by the elections office by 7 p.m. on Election Day.

Meanwhile, Williams has filed a complaint with the St. Petersburg Police Department against Rouson, who he claims physically threatened him during a heated candidates forum Wednesday at a luncheon hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club. Williams was not available for comment Friday afternoon.

Rouson, who denied the allegations, called it a desperate ploy.

"Clearly, my only intention was to acknowledge that I was going to beat him at the ballot box, I'm going to beat him at the polls ... and that's it," Rouson said.

Rouson said he only confronted Williams after the council member threatened him.

"He was challenging me. He wanted to take it outside. He wanted to get physical with me," Rouson said.

Times staff writer Abhi Raghunathan contributed to this report.

1,117 absentee ballots for House race are lost 03/15/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 17, 2008 2:03pm]
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