Temple Terrace ballots finally counted

01/29/09 Seán Kinane
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Even though the results of the 2008 election have been known for nearly three months, hundreds of completed ballots were looked at for the first time today.

Former Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson was defeated by more than 15,000 votes in the election, but the 431 ballots that his office did not include in the certified election results could have affected a close race for the Temple Terrace City Council. An unofficial examination of those ballots this morning did not change the outcome.

The ballots were examined at the Falkenberg Road office of new Supervisor of Elections Phyllis Busansky in response to a public records request on behalf of David Penoyer. He came in third in a race in which the top two candidates became members of the Temple Terrace City Council. Penoyer looked at electronic copies of all 431 uncounted ballots and read off the first names of who the voters selected. Penoyer picked up a net of 31 votes, not enough to close the 84-vote official margin.

“It was great to actually have the unofficial count so we could tell people that their votes did matter and so we can see whether that actually changed the outcome of the race. And in this case it didn’t, but that’s fine. The more important thing is that there were 15 percent of the people whose votes didn’t count in that precinct and that’s a huge number.”

Mary Jane Neale came in second in the certified election results and has served as a Temple Terrace City Council member since November. A few seconds after her opponent finished his unofficial tally of uncounted votes from Precinct 651 at the Temple Terrace Presbyterian Church, Neale told WMNF she feels relieved.

“It was important to get the votes counted. Yes, it’s very important for the electorate to have every vote counted, regardless of the outcome. … It’s been very difficult, really, not knowing where I sat. But we have a very good relationship.”

Election officials unpacked boxes and envelopes containing the uncounted ballots from the two precincts at the church. The ballots were already sorted by precinct, but under the watchful eye of the two candidates, officials made sure they were aligned correctly to be scanned. Because the candidates were not on the ballot in precinct 626, only ballots from precinct 652 were taken to a copy machine in the hallway that scanned all the ballots. The eight Portable Document Format digital files were burned onto a CD-R and given to Penoyer who looked at each ballot on his laptop computer. Penoyer says he will not challenge the results of the election in court.

“I don’t know if that’s in the best interests of the city of Temple Terrace. Because what would it do? Maybe it makes it a little closer, maybe it overturns it, but I think the last thing that the city needs is someone who’s going to look like a poor sport or to try to keep raising these issues. And the City Council has a lot of important things in front of them and I think that we need to let them get on and do those tasks.”

Penoyer is concerned about missteps in the elections office under Buddy Johnson and that it took nearly three months before he knew for sure that he had lost the race.

“Well obviously, you pick up the paper or listen to the radio and you hear all the things that were bungled by the former Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson. I think that we should be happy now that we’ve fixed that in this race. And I know that Ms. Busansky’s got a lot of work on her hands. I feel happy that at least we were able to do the unofficial count and we were able to avoid the lawsuits. So we saved people time, money, we got the results a lot quicker than we otherwise would have.”

Busansky learned about the uncounted ballots in mid-January, even though a memo revealed that Buddy Johnson’s office knew they were missing by Dec. 12.

Sharon Samek, with the Hillsborough Chapter of the Florida Democratic Lawyers Council, filed the public records request on behalf of Penoyer. Samek also wants to find whether Johnson’s office knew about the uncounted ballots before the election results were certified on Nov. 16.

“Well, that’s pathetic. And we are still inquiring. We do have the public records request so that we know when these ballots were found.”

Some of the criticisms of Johnson’s tenure include voters being given incomplete ballots on Election Day, a two-day delay in tallying November’s vote, hundreds of provisional ballots being left unsecured in the lobby of the Supervisor of Elections' office, requesting payment for trips he had already been reimbursed for, and leaving office with a $2.3 million deficit because of questionable expenditures.

An editorial in Thursday’s St. Petersburg Times called on Johnson to be investigated by state and federal authorities. A current elections official, Sigrid Tidmore, read a statement from Busansky’s office.

“It is clear that the procedures formerly used to control ballots and ballot boxes have proved to be inadequate. In her new position as Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections, Phyllis Busansky has already begun a major review and overhaul of all the organization’s protocols for handling these important materials so that voters can be assured in the future that every vote will count and every vote will be count on time.”

Since Penoyer will not contest the election results, the certified results will stand and the uncounted ballots will never be officially tallied.

Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections

Previous WMNF coverage of 2008 Hillsborough elections issues

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