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$43.20 qualifies as big goof

A goof by state officials has set off an 11th-hour scramble for some 96 candidates seeking legislative office.

The state's Division of Elections, with help from the state House, incorrectly calculated the filing fee for legislative races. As a result, candidates need to write a bigger check to qualify for the November election.

And they need to do it by noon Friday.

Secretary of State Katherine Harris could not be reached Wednesday and her spokesman, David Host, would not say where she was.

"She's out of the office," was all Host would say. Harris' campaign office, which is handling her run for Congress, also would not say where the secretary of state was on Wednesday.

The mistake on the filing fees apparently happened in June, but elections officials didn't catch it until Tuesday afternoon, when someone notified state Elections Division director Clay Roberts.

Roberts posted an "urgent alert" on the division's Web site.

On Wednesday, state elections officials scrambled to notify candidates, who now have just one day to send in an extra $43.20.

"The candidates we're calling are rightfully upset," Roberts said.

One voice mail message, released by the Florida Democratic Party, showed that an elections staffer gave more wrong information to a Sarasota candidate running for the state House, telling him he had to send in $43.28, when in fact the correct amount is $43.20.

Late Wednesday, the Elections Division announced that it was notifying candidates of the deadline to "protect themselves from frivolous court challenges."

"The Division of Elections," the statement said, "will vigorously oppose any effort to remove a qualified candidate from the ballot who is not able to meet this deadline."

Host, Harris' spokesman, said 96 candidates sent in a check for the wrong amount, and about 250 haven't sent in a check.

Some candidates _ like the 85 candidates from the Libertarian Party _ don't pay a filing fee at all. They qualify by collecting signatures.

The amount of the filing fee is based on a lawmaker's annual salary.

The Elections Division used last year's salary _ $28,608, instead of this year's, which is $29,328. The division apparently received the wrong salary amount from the House of Representatives.

"It was an honest mistake," said Kim Stone, spokeswoman for the House speaker's office.

Florida Democratic Party chairman Bob Poe immediately attacked Harris.

"This election is going to be under a microscope, and we can't even get out of the starting gate without a major screwup by Katherine Harris. She's nowhere to be found. She's not in Tallahassee, and it's in the middle of qualifying week. It's one of the most important things a secretary of state does, qualifying candidates."

Poe marched down to Harris' office Wednesday but was told she was not there.

Both the state Democratic and Republican parties were trying to contact candidates, too, worried that candidates might not be able to express-mail the new checks on time _ especially if mail carriers make a mistake.

Local legislative candidate Kai Rush said he hadn't been notified of the filing fee mistake because he recently moved.

"This Friday? I didn't know anything about it," said Rush, a 24-year-old Dunedin High School teacher and Democrat who is running for the seat now held by Republican Kim Berfield. "They never got in touch with me. That is ridiculous."

Complicating matters is the fact that many legislative experts and lawmakers are at the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

The filing fee checks have to be signed by the campaign treasurer. Democratic Sen. Rod Smith of Ganesville is in Denver; his campaign treasurer was off fishing in North Carolina. So he had to appoint a new campaign treasurer, send that letter, and now someone has to drive the new signed check to Tallahassee by Friday's deadline.

"I hope after all this I don't get disqualified over $40," Smith said.

Four members of the Legislature's Elections Committee, including St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jim Sebesta, had to untangle their own filing fee messes from the conference in Denver.

Sen. Al Lawson, a Democrat from Tallahassee, appointed himself campaign treasurer so he could sign his own check.

"I have no confidence at all with their ability to run an election," Lawson said in Denver.

_ Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.