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Two days after polls close, Johnson concedes Hillsborough elections supervisor race to Busansky

TAMPA — It took two days longer than the rest of the state to tally the votes, but by the time Hillsborough County finished counting Thursday night, the local winner's circle didn't include the man many held responsible for the glitches and delays.

About 6 p.m. Thursday, a red-eyed Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson conceded and congratulated his challenger, Phyllis Busansky, minutes after the long-awaited results of early voting had been tabulated. The polls had been closed for nearly two days.

"I'm proud of my staff, I'm proud of the voters," said Johnson, 56. "You may not have seen the last of Buddy Johnson."

It was a brief statement, and Johnson looked visibly exhausted from the strain of losing a close race and heading an office weathering a barrage of criticism from the media and local and state officials.

He left without answering reporters, who asked if he took responsibility for the delayed count of more than 85,000 early votes that, in the end, proved to be the difference in his own race.

Before disappearing for the night, Johnson offered support for his successor, saying he would do anything to make her transition a smooth one.

"I'm absolutely thrilled," Busansky said from her home Thursday night. "I ran on restoring confidence in this office and that's what we've done."

When asked what she planned to do in January, on her first day at the helm of an elections office in disarray, Busansky said: "I have no idea. Until two minutes ago, I wasn't at all sure I was going to win."

Busansky, 71, began her career in public service as director of Hilllsborough County's aging services. In 1988, she was elected to the Hillsborough County Commission, where she served two terms and became known as the champion of the county's highly-regarded health care program for the poor. She also headed the state's welfare-to-work program under Govs. Jeb Bush and Lawton Chiles.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who was Hillsborough's supervisor of elections from 1993 to 2003, served with Busansky on the County Commission. She said she expected Busansky would do well in her new post.

"You don't start off as an elections expert. You have to become one," she said. "I'm sure in short order she will become an elections expert."

She won't have much time. Busansky will be inheriting an office that endured a stormy 5 1/2 years after Johnson, a founder of the popular Buddy Freddy's Restaurant chain, was appointed by Gov. Bush after Iorio became mayor.

His tenure included a host of complaints, errors and delays for nearly every election on his watch. This last Election Day was especially bedeviled from the start, with mistakes made by poll workers in handing out the incorrect number of ballots to hundreds of voters and a lack of equipment at a precinct at the University of South Florida overwhelmed by students.

Hillsborough may have been last in counting its votes, but it was first in the number of complaints, according to a voting rights group monitoring Florida.

By Tuesday night, Johnson's office was on the brink. For much of the evening, he was gone, and no one from his office answered questions from the media about why Hillsborough lagged behind other counties. When he did appear at 11:25 p.m., Johnson gave a sunny pronouncement about how well things had gone that puzzled members of his own Republican Party.

"I don't know how you can come in blind off the street like that and act like everything is fine when everyone here is frustrated with how this night has gone," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita, a member of the canvassing board. "How can you not give these people answers."

Three hours later, Johnson finally acknowledged that all had not gone well. But he blamed the vendor of the optical scanning equipment for the delay. It was a technological glitch caused by the software, he said, and it was Premier Election Solutions' fault.

The Hillsborough County Commission approved the $5.8-million purchase of Premier's voting system in February, partly on Johnson's recommendation.

But Johnson used the company as a punching bag, blaming it when problems cropped up. He blamed Premier for another delay during the primary election in September. Back then, Premier officials were quick to accept blame. But on Tuesday night, they were slow in acknowledging responsibility for the delay.

By Wednesday, company officials said the glitch was caused by a system flaw. Yet the company had warned Johnson's staff in early September that there might be problems processing data from early voting machines.

An e-mail from account manager Jay Bollenbacher starts: "As you know, we are expecting a high volume of voter turn out in the November election." He recommended changing out the memory cards on machines at early voting sites after several days of use and once a few thousand ballots had been processed.

On Election Day, large files from early voting machines couldn't be uploaded to the server that counts the ballots because the program shut down before the task could be finished. That forced elections officials today to re-feed more than 80,000 ballots cast during the early voting period into dozens of scanners.

The delays drew heated critiques. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor has joined two Democratic state senators, Arthenia Joyner and Charlie Justice, in asking state and federal officials to look into voting problems.

Castor, D-Tampa, wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice, saying Johnson "has not met his legal responsibilities."

Joyner called the delay "more embarrassing by the hour" and asked Gov. Charlie Crist to intervene.

Johnson's concession on Thursday disappointed Ferlita, who wanted a more detailed explanation about why things had gone awry. For a second member of the canvassing board, County Commissioner Kevin White, Johnson's concession showed "a very proud man who was dealing with the agony of defeat.''

The canvassing board still must count about 3,700 provisional ballots today at 4 p.m.

All three members of the canvassing board, including County Judge James Dominguez, said they expect some legal action against Premier.

"Somebody will have to be held accountable,'' he said.

Times staff writers Kevin Graham and Richard Danielson contributed to this report.

>>fast facts

It's almost final

The latest tally in Hillsborough supervisor of elections race, with provisional ballots yet to be counted:

Buddy Johnson — 233,063

Phyllis Busansky — 251,700

Two days after polls close, Johnson concedes Hillsborough elections supervisor race to Busansky 11/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 5:06pm]
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