I arrived at the Supervisor of Elections office a little after 6 p.m. after being told over the phone that the real excitement begins around 7 p.m. when the polls close. A friendly receptionist greeted me in the lobby, but getting ahold of an official to take me back to the viewing area proved difficult as the 20 or so people in the building were all focused on ensuring every vote was counted efficiently and properly. After a few phone calls, I was eventually led back by the man who oversees the optical scanner voting machines.
To my surprise, I was the only member of the media in the room. In fact, the only other person in the room was a technician on standby in the event there was a problem with a machine. The technician, who wished to remain anonymous, assured me that this was not the case during larger elections and described the frenzied atmosphere during the last national election. He said then the room was full of lawyers and officials representing both Republicans and Democrats, and they were constantly shouting about one perceived issue or another.
The lack of a crowd made it easy to set up a laptop, take notes, and, most importantly – hear what was said in the official election conference room. A thick panel of glass separates the viewing area from the conference room, and for the sake of transparency, audio from that room was also broadcast into the viewing area. This allowed for a unique insight into what county administrators were thinking as the process unfolded. A large, flat-screen T.V. displayed election results as they came in, although it was easy to see the giant projection screen displaying the same results in the conference room.
Members of the Election Canvassing Board were in the conference room with Supervisor of Elections Julie Marcus, including Pinellas County Commission Chair Dave Eggers. They discussed candidates’ campaigns and the results, and the efficiency of the process. When Marcus mentioned that “Pinellas is a bellwether county for the entire country,” correctly predicting every presidential election winner except for two, it incited a friendly debate as to what two elections the county missed on.
To the right of the viewing area was the operations room, where a handful of people feverishly worked to scan ballots under the watchful eye of an election official. This room was only accessible with a key card, and a Pinellas County Sherriff’s deputy stood watch over the procedure. In the two and a half hours I was there, he never left his post. Even with the building mostly empty, security was tight. In addition to that deputy, another officer was posted in the adjacent hallway, blocking the entrance to the room where people went over ballots that may have an issue – such as ineligible signatures or liquid damage. Wi-Fi was also restricted in the building for security purposes.
That officer said that out of 4,000 ballots that required additional scrutiny, only 22 were “red-flagged.”
There were no issues in the process, which the technician called a “well-oiled machine.” He said the voting machines are tested “a million times” before an election and that he is there in case they need him, “but they never do.” The outcome of the election was largely uneventful as well, as previous polls were correct in predicting Ken Welch and Robert Blackmon would emerge from the mayoral race primary.
The vast majority of the 55,445 votes cast were sent by mail – something expected during a resurgent pandemic. Although thousands of votes were cast in the last couple of hours that polls were open, the percentages for each candidate did not change much. While the number of mail-in ballots received was available throughout the day, election officials do not list them after 7 p.m. on election night as a privacy precaution.
By 8 p.m., most of the 92 precincts had reported, and their results were verified. However, it was overheard that one machine from one precinct was down, and a USB stick with that ballot information was being driven directly to the office. At one point, Marcus remarked that “St. Pete has a great drop rate – that’s fantastic.”
Dustin Chase, Communications Director for Supervisor of Elections Office, told the Catalyst that “from an election administration point of view, we had tremendous success using some new processes that were brought forth because of Senate Bill 90, and we have tested the processes and look forward to using them in general elections and 2022 primary.”
“As always, any success that Pinellas County has with elections is due in part to a team effort,” said Chase. “Of course, we have a great staff here who help support the elections, but more than anything, Pinellas County voters are always educated on the process, they’re prepared, and they help us with great elections.”