TAMPA — Among Florida's largest counties, Hillsborough had the most provisional ballots filled out by residents turned away at the polls, a clear sign to some that voters encountered more difficulties under outgoing Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson.
"Having that many provisional votes reflects on the poor process at the Supervisor of Elections Office," said Pat Kemp, vice chairwoman of the county's Democratic Party. "This wouldn't have happened if this office had good practices in place."
Johnson, a Republican who lost his re-election bid to Democrat Phyllis Busansky, couldn't be reached for comment.
When asked about the high number of provisional ballots, Kathy Harris, legal counsel to Johnson's office, said she didn't know anything about the issue.
In the world of elections, this type of ballot is a consolation prize, filled out by residents whose voting qualifications are in question. It's up to canvassing boards to determine days later which provisional ballots are legitimate.
On Friday, Hillsborough's canvassing board approved 56 percent of the 4,424 provisional ballots that were filled out.
The canvassing board in Pinellas County finished its work Friday as well. Of the 1,034 provisional ballots it examined, 493 were accepted, or nearly 48 percent.
While they were intended to improve accessibility to polls, these ballots should be a last resort because of such high rejection rates, say voting rights advocates.
About 180 attorneys working for the Democratic Party patrolled Hillsborough precincts.
As Tuesday unfolded, Democrats were alarmed by the high number of Hillsborough residents who were being told they had to vote on provisional ballots, said Sharon Samek, the lead county counsel for the Obama-Biden voter protection team.
"For the first hour and a half of voting, it was terrible," Samek said. "Our phones were ringing nonstop."
Samek said a recurring problem was that poll workers didn't know the law and repeatedly told qualified voters they needed to use provisional ballots.
Communication was another problem.
Poll workers had to verify a voter's eligibility by calling a phone bank of workers, who checked whether the person was a registered voter. But so many calls jammed the lines that many poll workers couldn't get through.
At Precinct 949 at the Marion Rodgers Middle School in Riverview, chaotic conditions ensued when hundreds of voters showed up who were listed in registers as having received absentee ballots. Most of the voters insisted they had not asked for or received absentee ballots.
Poll workers at the precinct, which has 5,752 registered voters, put the questionable absentee voters in one line and asked them to wait.
But that process bogged down when they temporarily lost phone service. Some impatient voters left without casting ballots, according to precinct clerk Janet Dougherty. Others filed provisional ballots. Of 29 provisional ballots filed there, most were related to the absentee question, Dougherty said.
"With the phones down and only one computer, it was very difficult to get the verification you needed from downtown," she said. "It got pretty insane."
Kemp confirmed that Democratic poll watchers reported busy signals all day.
The county was using a new phone system that cost $135,000. Johnson approved it this year. He's quoted in an Oct. 30 press release by the vendor of the phone system.
"Our goal was to run our communications efficiently and cost-effectively, and find a way to adequately manage our election-day call volumes," Johnson said in the release. "Most important, we have improved service to the citizens of Hillsborough County while saving vital tax dollars."
Harris said it was too soon to evaluate how well it performed.
"The phone system was not perfect, but the technology was a tremendous improvement over the previous system," she wrote in an e-mail. "I hesitate to give a speedy assessment because there are numerous factors to consider when assessing the phone system and the impact on the outcome of the election."
There was also a question about how many people Johnson had answering the phones.
In Miami-Dade, about 100 people fielded calls to verify voter registration information. Same with Pinellas County.
But when asked how many workers were used in Hillsborough to answer phones, Harris wasn't able to say. She said 120 lines were dedicated to the phone bank, but didn't say if workers were manning each of those lines.
Samek, who spent much of Election Day at the Supervisor of Elections Office, said she saw the room where the phones were being answered, and said there were no more than 60 employees.
Before the election, Samek attended several training sessions of poll workers, where she said she heard many of Johnson's employees tell him about the flaws in communications plan. "They were telling him that this was going to be the biggest problem," Samek said. "He was warned about this."
Times staff writer Will Van Sant contributed to this story.