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Elections site posts errant tally

For three weeks since the Aug. 31 primary, the Web site of Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson included this obvious contradiction: a total of 118,699 people turned out to vote countywide, while 125,891 voted in the race for state attorney.

That's 7,192 more votes than voters.

Did the county's new-fangled touch screen voting machines go haywire and tabulate extra votes? Was there a ballot-stuffing scandal in the race for county prosecutor?

No, it was something even more predictable in the recent history of vote tabulation in Hillsborough County.

It was human error, Johnson said Wednesday.

Johnson's staff somehow underreported the voter turnout on the county elections Web site, and no one noticed it until a St. Petersburg Times reporter brought it to Johnson's attention during an interview Wednesday morning.

"I don't know why it's there," Johnson said after consulting with his staff two different times. "It's a human error. We input this. We'll fix it today."

The total turnout reported by Johnson to the Florida Division of Elections was 138,389, almost 20,000 votes more than his Web site count. The higher number was certified by the state. It's official. Johnson stands by it, though he last week amended where those votes went.

On Friday, Johnson reported to state officials that he had discovered 245 votes that were never counted. The votes were left untabulated when a veteran elections worker left a voting machine in "test" mode, causing its votes to be recorded but not added to the final election results.

The 245 votes, cast in early voting for two weeks prior to the primary, don't count and can't be awarded to the candidates who deserved them, since they were found after state certification. They become a footnote to the primary election of 2004: votes cast but not counted.

Fortunately for all involved, the 245 votes would not have altered the outcome of any of the races in Hillsborough County, Johnson said.

Johnson's summation of that foul-up? It was human error, said the supervisor, whose own political fate could rise or fall with the fortunes of the election office.

Johnson, 52, is a co-founder of BuddyFreddy's restaurant and a three-term GOP legislator appointed elections chief last year when Pam Iorio resigned to run for Tampa mayor. In the Nov. 2 general election, he faces Democratic newcomer Rob MacKenna, 33, a computer programmer for Eckerd Corp. and Florida organizer of the Howard Dean presidential bid.

"It's hardly a surprise to hear that Buddy Johnson's office has made another mistake," MacKenna said Wednesday in response to a question about Johnson's Web site. "It may be that the real human error was made when the governor appointed Johnson supervisor of elections."

Johnson had another vote tabulation problem after the polls closed on Aug. 31, when his computer servers slowed to a crawl, resulting in a final tally that was delayed until 5:10 a.m.

Sequoia Voting Systems, the vendor that sold Hillsborough its $12-million package of touch screen voting machines, was consulted. The company finally determined that a computer indexing system had malfunctioned, causing a server to repeatedly search through its entire database before recording any single vote.

Hillsborough bought the Sequoia touch screen machines after the Florida Legislature banned punch card balloting in the wake of the disputed 2000 presidential election.

After the painfully slow vote count, Johnson said he wasn't sure why it happened but promised that the problem was fixed and could be remedied if it recurred on election day in November.

He also said a test had been available to check the indexing system, but it was not used because Sequoia, which has sold more than 48,000 voting devices in 35 states, had never experienced this particular glitch.

Pinellas County, which also uses Sequoia touch screen machines, counted the votes of 130,482 residents by 10:40 p.m. election night, about seven hours quicker than Johnson's office.

It isn't clear how Johnson's office managed to put the 118,699-voter turnout number on its Web site. But many media outlets relied on the accuracy of the site in continued reporting on Hillsborough's tabulation problems.

Saturday, in a news story about the 245 lost votes, the Tampa Tribune published the erroneous 118,699 voter turnout number. The Associated Press also picked up the number. By Sunday, Johnson's faulty Web site total had even been published in the New York Times.

By late Wednesday afternoon, the error had been removed from Johnson's web site, and along with any mention of a turnout total.

Jeff Testerman can be reached at (813) 226-3422 or by e-mail at testermansptimes.com

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