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Hillsborough counts 846 ballots a week after election

TAMPA — In a fitting postscript to a problem-plagued election, several hundred Hillsborough County votes got counted for the first time Wednesday.

The tally took place eight days after the Nov. 4 general election and four days after the county submitted unofficial voting results to the state.

The previously uncounted 846 absentee ballots don't appear to change the outcome of any race on the ballot. But the late reckoning caps an election marred by problems counting votes, long lines for college voters and incomplete ballots provided at some polling sites.

Kathy Harris, chief of staff and general counsel to Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson, said the ballots were never lost or misplaced. They were absentee ballots turned in at the County Center on the final day of voting.

Harris said the ballots were sent to the Elections Service Center in Brandon after the polls closed and were locked in a secure area. Elections workers never got around to counting them because they were busy with equipment troubles that prevented them from counting thousands of early votes, she said.

Harris said elections workers knew the ballots were there, but it wasn't until Wednesday that the Canvassing Board had time to oversee their count.

"I think, if anything, it was just we needed time to process everything else," Harris said, fielding questions on behalf of Johnson. "We didn't want to not get the early vote count done in time for the unofficial vote deadline."

All counties had until Saturday to report unofficial voting totals to the state Division of Elections. Elections supervisors have until Sunday to submit final results.

Hillsborough County Canvassing Board member Kevin White, a county commissioner, gave a different account than Harris. He said he was told Wednesday that the absentee ballots were discovered when elections workers went to get ballots needed for a recount in one race.

That recount, for the Tampa Palms Open Space and Transportation Community Development District, was ongoing Wednesday. The Canvassing Board — consisting Wednesday of Johnson and White — also ruled on the validity of some of the new absentee ballots.

Told of Harris' account, White said he can't be sure if he was given a time frame for when the absentee ballots turned up, or whether "discovered" was the right term.

"I want to totally give them the benefit of the doubt," White said. "One thing I can applaud them for is truly making sure every vote counts. I'm just glad it wasn't enough votes one way or the other to (change the outcome of) an election."

Incoming Supervisor of Elections Phyllis Busansky characterized the situation as serious. She spent much of the campaign criticizing Johnson's oversight of the office.

Johnson has been criticized in the past for moving polling places without notifying voters, delayed results in vote counting and his slow pace in switching to new voting machines in time for this election.

"This is the kind of thing that I am really committed to ensuring doesn't happen," Busansky said.

"The reason I ran is because people expressed a lack of confidence that their vote would count."

Times staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough counts 846 ballots a week after election 11/12/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 14, 2008 8:23pm]
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