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Pinellas elections supervisor takes responsibility for botched Election Day robocalls

LARGO — Elections supervisor Deborah Clark on Saturday took full responsibility for the Election Day robocall fiasco, but she still could not answer key questions about how the botched calls occurred.

Clark said it took her four days to offer an explanation because her office was swamped last week processing provisional ballots and certifying election results.

She also acknowledged that she wrongly blamed the debacle on CallFire Inc., the California company whose software she used to make the calls. On Tuesday, when she told a Tampa Bay Times reporter her staff had done nothing wrong, Clark assumed that the company had initiated the messages — which indicated to voters that they could cast ballots the day after the election.

"That's what I believed at the time," she said. "We didn't know how else it could have happened."

The erroneous calls went out, she said, because her staff didn't understand vital nuances of CallFire's software. Clark, who declined to name those responsible, said the mistake was unintentional.

"This one is on me," she said. "It's my responsibility."

As a courtesy to voters, she said, her staff triggered the automated system to begin making calls at 4:50 p.m. on Monday. The message targeted people who had requested absentee ballots but not yet sent them back. It informed residents they had until "tomorrow" to cast their votes. Clark's staff scheduled the calls to run until 8 p.m., she said, although they knew it was possible not all of the more than 38,000 eligible recipients would be reached in time.

At 8 a.m. Election Day, the same message automatically restarted, she said. By then, however, "tomorrow" meant Wednesday. More than 12,000 erroneous calls went out over 34 minutes before Clark's staff caught the mistake and shut them off. Elections officials soon after began sending new calls to correct the error.

On Thursday, she requested that the county's business technology services investigate the incident. According to the department's head, Paul Alexander, this is what they found:

Marc Gillette, the elections office IT director, set up the system to make 200 calls per minute beginning at 4:50 p.m. and stopping at 8 p.m. The software, however, required the user to specifically request that it not continue making calls if some voters remained in the queue in the days that followed. Gillette apparently didn't know that.

Alexander said he couldn't determine if Gillette, or anyone else, logged onto the system Monday night.

For reasons neither Alexander nor Clark can explain, the Monday evening calls went out a lower rate than expected — 142 per minute — and the Tuesday morning calls went out at an exceptionally high rate — 430 per minute. Clark said she didn't know if those calls had reached more Democrats or Republicans.

Clark said the Hillsborough County Elections Office had recommended CallFire to her staff.

Pinellas elections officials had used the software the week before to disseminate a similar message, she said. Clark didn't know if they had faced any problems.

Clark said she doesn't intend to fire anyone over the incident because it was an honest mistake.

"This was a human error," she said. "No good deed goes unpunished."

This story has been changed to reflect the following correction:

A robocall company said the Pinellas County Elections Supervisor's office logged onto its system twice and logged off once between Nov. 5 and 6. A story Sunday misstated the number of log-ons.

Pinellas elections supervisor takes responsibility for botched Election Day robocalls 11/10/12 [Last modified: Monday, November 12, 2012 5:16pm]
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