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A Times Editorial

Call in federal help

Hillsborough voters learned two nights ago who would lead the nation for the next four years, but it may take another day or more to find out who won election to the county School Board, the soil and water conservation district and other local offices. Elections Supervisor Buddy Johnson's performance was so flawed and suspect the federal government should come in, recount the vote and perform a thorough investigation. It needs to examine the wide variety of complaints and irregularities reported at the polling places and give a public accounting of how they happened. Something is fundamentally wrong when an elections office grinds to a halt because barely half the registered voters exercise their constitutional rights. This was no run-of-the-mill Johnson debacle, but a perfect storm of those qualities he has become known for: incompetence, bizarre behavior under pressure and a tendency to hide and point fingers when trouble hits the fan. Johnson was nowhere to be found most of Tuesday night as elections staff and employees of the company that sold Johnson the voting machines struggled to report results long after all but three other Florida counties called it a night.

Among the serious questions a Justice Department investigation should answer:

Why did some precincts hand out incomplete ballots or fail to anticipate voter turnout?

Precinct clerks confirmed that Hillsborough poll workers failed to give hundreds of voters the second page of their ballot early Tuesday. Hundreds of student voters at the University of South Florida waited for hours — some casting their ballots past 11 p.m., more than four hours after the scheduled closing of the polls — because Johnson did not provide enough voting booths. In both cases, the poll workers should have recognized the problem and corrected it immediately. There also should have been open lines of communication between the precincts and supervisors at headquarters to nip such problems in the bud. Either no one had the authority or nobody cared. Hillsborough surpassed every county in Florida for the most complaints logged with the Election Protection Coalition's Our Vote Live Web site. Taken together, these complaints paint a picture of an office unable to meet its legal responsibilities.

Why was the election count halted early Wednesday?

Johnson has blamed technical problems for the delay, but the public deserves a clearer answer. What exactly went wrong? Did officials not test their equipment? Where was the fallback plan? Johnson's office has cited heavy voter turnout as contributing to the delay. But it is important to remember that at the time the count was halted Wednesday, the county had recorded ballots from only 59 percent of Hillsborough's registered voters. If not even two-thirds of those eligible can cause the system to crash, what does that say about Johnson's ability to count the vote in a large, urban county?

How are the votes secured and how many are left to count?

The decision to suspend the count early Wednesday and the conflicting reports on how many votes remain uncounted raises many concerns. What was the protocol for dealing with a so-called computer glitch? Officials said they would count about 6,000 absentees cast Tuesday, then recount votes from two sites where scanning machines failed, and then tally early votes that could not be counted on Election Day. An estimated 87,500 votes are waiting to be counted. There also are an untold number of provisional ballots.

There are too many questions to rely on the very people who caused the mess for credible answers. The wall of silence that Johnson and his senior staff have built around their operation only further adds to the anxiety. His blaming the vendor is either a stab at saving his political career or the clearest indication yet that Johnson has outsourced the elections process. Neither instills much faith. With tens of thousands of votes left to count, and with Johnson ahead of his challenger by only 3,654 votes, out of 400,000 recorded so far, the prudent move is to move him aside and bring in outside eyes. The federal government needs to step in and oversee a recount to preserve the integrity of this election.

Call in federal help 11/05/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 9, 2008 11:02am]
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