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Hillsborough paid a lot for ballot boxes that didn't speed up the vote count

Hillsborough supervisor of elections’ voting equipment purchases included $165 voting booths, left, and $1,850 ballot boxes, which hold ballots fed into optical scanners.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Hillsborough supervisor of elections’ voting equipment purchases included $165 voting booths, left, and $1,850 ballot boxes, which hold ballots fed into optical scanners.

TAMPA — They're called ballot boxes, but the containers Hillsborough's supervisor of elections office bought last year are so much more.

They have electronic sensors and a motor inside. A special tread is designed to increase capacity. And they cost $1,850. Each.

"That's a lot of money," said Kurt Browning, Florida's secretary of state. "I would not be paying more than $1,000 a box."

As officials sift through the $2.3-million deficit left by former Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson, it's the $407,000 he paid for 220 ballot boxes that has raised the most eyebrows.

"That's the primary concern for us right now," said Hillsborough County administrator Pat Bean. "When I heard how much they paid for each box, I was like, 'Whoa!' "

The boxes were much more expensive than those purchased by other Florida counties. Pinellas, for example, used scanner boxes that sold for $425 each. Palm Beach County boxes cost $145.

Johnson signed a contract with Premier Election Solutions for the boxes in August, adding to some his office already had in stock. Made of durable plastic and metal, they attached to optical scan machines bought from Premier earlier in the year.

But as Election Day neared, Johnson fretted about high voter turnout, said Premier's spokesman, Chris Riggall. Johnson told Premier he wanted to expedite the voting process by speeding up the time it took to replace boxes filled with ballots, Riggall said.

Browning, who served 26 years as Pasco's supervisor of elections, said poll workers typically remove the boxes, dump the ballots into a bag or a cheaper box, then re-attach the scanner to the now-empty box.

Johnson had that option, but chose instead to buy more of the special scanner boxes, and use many for storage during much of Election Day.

Only those expensive, high-tech boxes could fit onto the Premier scanner machines. So in order for Johnson to switch them out as he did, he had to buy more of them from Premier.

Johnson's method did have the advantage of speed, Riggall said. But while Hillsborough stored ballots in boxes costing more than a John Deere lawn tractor, Orange County used cardboard boxes that cost about 73 cents each.

Broward County spent $88,000 for about 950 ballot bags, or $92 a bag.

Pasco estimates its cost to store ballots was zero because poll workers simply reused the boxes the ballots came in.

It's ironic that Johnson paid a premium on boxes to speed up the vote tallies because Hillsborough's November election results lagged behind every other county in Florida.

Technical glitches delayed results until a week after Election Day. But that wasn't the fault of the boxes, which worked fine.

"Gravity works great a good bit of the time, but it doesn't always work," Riggall said. "These boxes are very robust with the best technology. For speed and convenience, they're the ones you want."

Except for storage, Browning said.

"What most counties did was reuse the scanner boxes and use regular plastic boxes for storage," he said. "Nothing fancy about it."

Times staff writers Bill Varian and Jeff Testerman contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (813) 226-3402 or mvansickler@sptimes.com

A Rolls-Royce box

The ballot boxes Hillsborough County bought last year are the Rolls-Royce of the election world, complete with electric sensors, motors and a sawtooth tread to guide ballots into the box. Here's a comparison of what Hillsborough and two other similarly sized counties spent on ballot boxes.

Hillsborough$1,850 a box
Pinellas$425 a box
Palm Beach$145 a box

Hillsborough paid a lot for ballot boxes that didn't speed up the vote count 01/14/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 14, 2009 11:13pm]
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