Interview with Peggy Robbins, March 4, 2002

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Interview with Peggy Robbins, March 4, 2002
Robbins, Peggy ( Interviewee )
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Florida Election Project Oral History Collection ( local )


This text has been transcribed from an audio or video oral history. Digitization was funded by a gift from Caleb J. and Michele B. Grimes.

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Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Department of History, University of Florida
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FEP 19
Peggy Robbins

Peggy Robbins begins by telling how long she has been supervisor of elections for
Martin County and what election day was like for her. She talks about how they
performed the recounts and their ballot design. She describes how they processed the
overseas and absentee ballots and over-votes and under-votes. She mentions training
and paying poll workers. She states that Martin County has new touch screen voting
machines and talks about how much they cost and people's familiarity with that type of
equipment (1-6).

Robbins discusses the numbers of absentee ballots requested and returned. She also
recounts the events whereby the requests for ballots were taken out of her office to
have voter identification numbers inserted, including the lawsuit, Ronald Taylor v. Martin
County Canvassing Board, in which she testified (6-9). Robbins reflects on how she
and Theresa LePore, in Palm Beach County, were treated by the media and the local
people and on how other states likely had similar problems. She saw no evidence of
discrimination during the election (9-10). She briefly touches on the Election Reform
Act of 2001, the felon list, the recount done by the New York Times and the Miami
Herald (11-12). Robbins assesses the performance of Secretary of State Katherine
Harris (12-13). Lastly, she talks about voter responsibility and education, how her job
has changed, Governor Jeb Bush's activities during the election (14-16).

FEP 19
Interviewee: Peggy Robbins
Interviewer: Julian Pleasants
Date: March 4, 2002

P: This is Julian Pleasants. It is March 4, 2002. I am with the Martin County
Supervisor of Elections and we are beginning our discussion of the presidential
election of 2000. Tell me how you got to be supervisor of elections.

R: Originally, I was appointed because the supervisor of elections resigned. I was
appointed by Reubin Askew [Florida governor 1971-1979]. Of course, I've been
elected since then.

P: When were you first appointed?

R: 1977.

P: Have you been in office continuously since that time?

R: Yes, I have.

P: Can you tell me your political affiliation?

R: Do I have to?

P: No.

R: Okay, because in my job, political affiliation means absolutely nothing.

P: That's why I asked that question. Do you think that the job itself ought to be

R: I think it would be very nice if this job could be nonpartisan, yes.

P: Tell me what Election Day was like for you.

R: This Election Day in 2000 was really no different than any other Election Day. I
couldn't point out any major differences.

P: When did you realize that you were going to have significant issues and that the
election was going to be very close?

R: Not until the day after the election.

P: What did you do immediately upon learning that you had to have a recount,

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because the difference was one-half of one percent? Is that how it's decided?

R: We set up to have a recount.

P: How did you do that recount?

R: With the voting machines, we took the canvassing board and went to the
warehouse. We looked at all the voting machines and checked what had been
written down on the papers and what was on the machines.

P: Did you just tally up the totals or did you do a total recount?

R: On the voting machines, we have the lever mechanical voting machines, the
numbers are on the machines of how many voted and they're sitting there. You
just go back and read the numbers. We went back to verify that the people who
had written down the numbers had written them down correctly.

P: Did you have the lever machines?

R: Yes, we did have.

P: There were not too many lever machines like that in the state, were there?

R: No, there were not many.

P: How accurate were they?

R: Extremely accurate. They're mechanical, how much can go wrong with them?
They're very, very easy to operate and always accurate.

P: How many over-votes and under-votes did you have?

R: On the voting machines, you cannot over-vote. It does not allow you to over-
vote. We could only see how many people under-voted by how many people
voted, how many people voted in that office, and compare it. The voting machine
itself does not [specifically] record the under-votes.

P: That eliminated a lot of the problems for you that West Palm Beach and other
counties had.

R: Yes, right.

P: You had ten presidential candidates. How did you design your ballot to

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accommodate them?
R: We laid out our ballot the same way as the state sent it to us.

P: What do you think about what Theresa LePore [supervisor of elections, Palm
Beach County] did with the butterfly ballot?

R: I actually don't have an opinion on that.

P: In Duval County, the instructions said to vote every page and people tended to
vote, in some cases, for all ten candidates. Did you have that kind of problem?

R: Not at all.

P: When you go to deal with the problems that you have, one of the things that
always comes up is absentee ballots. How did you deal with overseas absentee
ballots and did you have many of them?

R: We mailed the overseas absentee ballots as quickly as they were printed. We
received most of them back before the ten-day [deadline]. We counted them.

P: Do you count them if they arrived after November 7? They're supposed to be
either postmarked before the election or on the day of the election, is that

R: That's correct.

P: If it came on November 8, you did not count it?

R: Are you talking about the law that says we can count them ten days after the

P: Yes, but don't they have to be postmarked?

R: They have to be postmarked.

P: What if they did not have any kind of postmark at all on them?

R: If they had no postmark and they were [not] dated, then you can't count them.

P: You didn't count them. Some counties did, as you may well know. They counted
some that were postmarked November 10, and one had been faxed. In some
counties, they did count them, but that was not a problem for you?

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R: No.

P: What did you do once the Florida Supreme Court made the decision to order a
recount of the under-votes?

R: We pulled out the under-votes and the over-votes and had them counted.

P: Was there a change at all?

R: There were minor changes, but it was almost nothing.

P: Did you agree with that court decision?

R: I thought it was unusual. I didn't understand why, particularly. If they thought it
was important, then let's do it.

P: I've talked to other elections supervisors. To a person, they say that one of the
great difficulties is getting poll workers. Do you have that problem as well?

R: Yes.

P: How do you get them and how much do you pay them?

R: We recruit poll workers in every way we can think of. We put notices in
condominium developments, every poll worker that we have, we ask them to ask
their friends if they want to work. We have several churches that put in their
bulletin that we need poll workers. Just about everything we can think of for
getting word out that we do need poll workers.

P: How much training do you give them?

R: We're having training classes right now to educate them on our new equipment.
We're having a long training class now in very small groups so they can actually
put [the machines] together, take them apart, learn how to operate them, learn all
the innuendos of, suppose someone asks this question, what do you say. All the
different things about the voting equipment. We'll have another training class
shortly before the election. Before each election. We'll have a training class
before the primary. We'll have a training class before the general [election].

P: What is your new equipment?

R: It is the touch-screen voting equipment.


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P: What do you think of that?

R: I think it's going to work very well. We have already used it in municipal elections
and it has done very well.

P: Is it difficult for older people to operate because they're not used to using

R: Your opinion on that seems to be absolutely backwards. The retired people
seem to know more about computers than anyone else because they all have
computers and they spend a lot of time using them. All of my friends who are
retired have computers, they e-mail very often. If they want information, they go
to the computer to get the information. They are very computer-oriented. Touch
screen is no problem with them, because they use the ATMs [automatic teller
machines], their microwaves have touch on it. They're very familiar with touch,
so they are not intimidated by computers or by touch screens at all.

P: Is there an override to prevent over-votes?

R: You can not over-vote a touch screen.

P: Who paid for the new machines?

R: Martin County.

P: They did? How much did it cost?

R: It was around [$2,700,000].

P: Was it worth it?

R: We didn't have any choice. We had to buy new voting equipment. Was it worth
it? That's an unusual question to ask, because how do you evaluate?

P: I was just thinking that there are other needs in the community as well. In the
past, I know other supervisors of elections had asked for new machines and they
said, we need the money for roads, we need the money for schools.

R: Martin County had not bought new voting equipment since the early 1970s.

P: Had you requested several times that they do so?

R: No, never.

FEP 19
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P: Never?

R: Never, the lever mechanical voting machines were wonderful equipment.
P: You really had no problem with that at all. Had it not been for the state, you
would still have your same equipment?

R: That is true.

P: What do you pay your poll workers?

R: The poll workers get $80 a day. The clerks get $110 a day and of course they
get paid for going to the training classes.

P: That's a pretty good amount of money, isn't it?

R: No.

P: No, not enough for the hassle?

R: No, they work about fourteen hours a day.

P: That is a long day. When you were dealing with this election, obviously there are
going to be a lot of issues for you, locally. I understand that in Martin County,
there were 3,000 requests for absentee ballots, is that right?

R: 3,000?

P: I wanted to check with you and see if that was an accurate number.

R: I don't think it's accurate.

P: How many requests were there, would you say?

R: 12,000. In the November 2000 election, we had 12,355 absentee ballots
requested and mailed out. Returned, we had 10,538.

P: That's important, because almost every written source has it completely wrong.
I'm glad to get that cleared up. One of the issues that has been confused, at
least by the media, is the ballot-request form has to have a voter identification
number. Is that correct?

R: I don't remember. I'd have to look at it. What are the requirements on the

FEP 19
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P: Let me ask you about the circumstances when there were several hundred
ballots that came in that did not have the voter identification number. The names
I have are Charlie Kane and Thomas Hauck. Did they come in and put the
identification numbers on the Republican ballots?

R: Yes.

P: Did they take those ballots requests out of the office?

R: Yes.

P: Some people argue that's a violation of Florida election law.

R: I didn't hear that particular argument made, because it's not. There were some
people who didn't think that [we] should have done that.

P: Was it a problem once they took it out, a lack of control? There was no way to
know exactly what they were doing with those requests.

R: The Republican Party mailed the request forms out, as did the Democratic Party.
The Democratic party, the state party, did it. The Democratic Party put a space
in for those numbers. The Republican Party didn't put it down as required.
When it came back that way, the Republicans were responsible for having done
it incorrectly. Doesn't it make sense to allow them to correct their mistake?

P: It was their mistake, not the printing company, is that correct?

R: Correct.

P: The people who made those requests were then officially given absentee ballots
once they put that number in, is that correct?

R: Yes.

P: Then they were in that sense, satisfactory. At any time did they have anything to
do with the ballots themselves?

R: No, they never touched a ballot.

P: When we deal with this issue, the figure I have is that they ended up collecting
670 ballot applications. Do you have any idea about whether that number was

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R: I'm sorry, I don't know how many there [were].

P: Once they do that, there is a lawsuit filed by Ronald Taylor, Ronald Taylor v.
Martin County Canvassing Board [challenges legality of absentee ballots in
Martin County] I know you know about this. I believe his suit asked to reject all
absentee ballots. Is that correct?

R: Yes.

P: What was the result of that suit?

R: The result of the suit was that the judge said that the ballots could be counted.

P: This went before Judge Terry Lewis, [Leon County Circuit Court Judge, 1988-
present] is that correct?

R: Yes.

P: Were you asked to testify?

R: Yes.

P: What specifically did you testify about? This is from the transcript. You said that it
seemed only logical to you to let them take the ballot away since the mistake had
been made by the Republican party. You did not want to deny the voters the
right to get the absentee ballot. Is that pretty clear?

R: Yes.

P: Would you have done the same thing for the Democratic Party?

R: Yes.

P: In this trial, the prosecutor argues that this was alteration of a public record
because it was changed, and therefore it was a public records violation. I know
from talking with Sandra Goard [supervisor of elections, Seminole County] that
both of you viewed that not as an official government document because it was a

R: Right.


FEP 19
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P: There is a woman named Barbara Peterson, who is the director of the First
Amendment Foundation. She says that the documents were public records once
they arrived at the elections office, even though they were requests. Is there
anything in the law that clarifies those circumstances?

R: No.

P: Do you know why they asked you to testify and not Sandra Goard?

R: I have no idea.

P: In Judge Lewis's final ruling, he said the evidence showed a clear violation both
of election law and public records law and that it did create an opportunity for
fraud. Do you agree with that statement?

R: Well, it depends on how you interpret this and that and the other, of course.

P: He noted also that the people who signed the request forms were duly qualified
and that there was no evidence of fraud or irregularities in either the casting of
the ballots or the counting of the ballots. It's kind of a dual decision. Do you
think he was correct in allowing all of the absentee ballots to be counted?

R: Yes, I do.

P: What reason would you give in support of that?

R: These people were eligible to vote and they voted legally. There was nothing
illegal about it.

P: Who were your lawyers in this case?

R: Ron Lebaski was my lawyer.

P: Was he hired by the county?

R: He was hired by the [Martin County] Supervisors of Elections [office].

P: This individual said that your actions were nothing more than indiscretion and
should be punishable only by a reprimand. Did you get a reprimand?

R: No.

P: Nothing specific was stated?

FEP 19
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R: That's true.

P: Do you think this incident will help you or hurt you in re-election?

R: It depends or whether or not they spell my name correctly.

P: How did the local people react?
R: They reacted with sympathy to me.

P: How would you assess your treatment by the media?

R: It was no worse than usual.

P: Do you think that the media was unfair to Florida? They made jokes about Flori-
duh, said the system was broken, that there were all kinds of problems.

R: I think if they had gone into other states, they would have found some states
[where the vote was] almost as close as ours. They didn't go with a microscope
to the other states. I found that to be interesting.

P: I know for example, the state of Georgia had probably twice as many over-votes
and under-votes as the state of Florida did.

R: Right.

P: That is true also for Illinois and other states. When the media was reporting
these events, and I'm sure as you know, it was a difficult period of time for
everybody, did you think they were overly intrusive or did they harass you in any

R: You know as well as I, that the media does not report anything positively, they
must report it negatively or they are not doing their job. They can't be nice. That
would be positive. Like I said, there are other states that were very close but the
media did not get in and micro-examine them. I'm trying to remember what
states and at the moment they're not coming to me. One of them was New
Mexico but after that, I can't remember exactly which ones. There were about
five that were very close.

P: New Mexico was one of them, yes.

R: They just hardly even got mentioned.


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P: Is there anything that you would do differently now that you have had time to
think back on the 2000 presidential election?

R: Not really.

P: What was the overall impact of this election on you, in terms of the thirty-six days
and the strain and all of the outside scrutiny?

R: I can't think of anything specifically. My hair turned a little gray.
P: Do you think the media treated Theresa LePore fairly?

R: Goodness, no.

P: Why do you think they were so harsh on her?

R: Because [she] was there. They pick on anything they can find, don't they?

P: Particularly in a presidential election. How would you assess the work of your
canvassing board during this election?

R: They did a terrific job. Every time I asked them to do something extra, like [when
I said,] we have to have a recount, I didn't get any squabble. Okay, when?
Where should we go? Where should we meet? They were very good.

P: Did you have any problems with counting under-votes, since you had no dimples
or chads or anything like that?

R: Only in the absentees.

P: What kinds of problems did you see on the absentee ballots?

R: We didn't have any problems. You said, we didn't have any dimples or chads. I
said, only on absentees.

P: Did you notice any discrimination at all during this election with African
Americans or other minorities?

R: No.

P: What do you think about the U.S. Civil Rights Commission meeting and holding
hearings about this and taking testimony?

R: I thought it was interesting, but I didn't think it had a whole lot of relationship to

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Martin County because we just weren't there.

P: Talk to me a little bit about the Election Reform Act of 2001. Do you agree with it
and do you think the reforms are positive?

R: There's a lot of it that has been very good, yes. Much of it is very positive.

P: Obviously, there are new machines. What do you think about the idea of
allowing a person who is challenged at the poll to cast a provisional ballot?

R: I think that's an interesting premise and it may turn out to be very good. It's
brand-new, so we're having to evaluate. We'll see how it works out. It certainly
does solve the problem of does she get to vote or not. The provisional ballot is
there and if that person is not eligible, then we can determine that later.

P: How did you use the felon list that came down? There were a lot of inaccuracies
in that list.

R: The felony list, we compared the list before we canceled people. We didn't have
many mistakes at all, because we did some comparisons to our other list.

P: Should felons be allowed to vote once they've paid their dues?

R: After they get their civil rights restored, yes.

P: Prior to that time?

R: I don't know. I haven't been into that. Prior to that time, meaning once they get
out of prison?

P: Yes.

R: I don't know. I would have to leave that up to the legislature.

P: I'm sure that the New York Times and the Miami Herald and all of those
newspapers came by here for the recount. What was your participation in that
and how accurate do you think that count was?

R: The recount? It was very good.

P: I'm talking about the newspapers' recount.

R: That was fine too. We sat out in the room and we gave everybody a spot. It

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went fine.

P: Do you think they were accurate in the way they tallied the votes? There are
different results from different polling companies.

R: Basically, they were looking over each others' shoulders. It seemed like they
were doing it.

P: How do you assess the performance of Secretary of State Katherine Harris
[Florida Secretary of State, 1998-present]? Do you see her as impartial in her
R: No.

P: Why not?

R: I wonder that myself.

P: Can you give me a specific example of impartiality?

R: Would you like to turn off the tape recorder?

P: No. [Laughter]. One of the things that's critical is the certification date, because
there were disputed election returns. A lot of lawyers thought that she had
flexibility and discretion in extending that date. Do you [think] she should have
done that?

R: I think it's something she could have done. Now, should she have done [it]? We
can argue both sides of that all day.

P: Some election supervisors I've talked to thought she was not very clear and
precise in some of her statements. One of those is law 111 and 112, where it
says in one place that the vote shall be counted and then the second part states
the vote may be counted. It was not very clear to a lot of elections supervisors
and canvassing boards exactly what they were supposed to do.

R: The law is pretty specific.

P: Does the word shall come before the word may, is that the way it works?

R: Yes.

P: When Bob Butterworth [Attorney General of Florida, 1986-present] gave his
opinion, Katherine Harris said that the counting should not continue unless there

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was a machine malfunction or a hurricane. He said the vote should continue.
Who has the authority in a case like that, the Secretary of State or the Attorney

R: I bet you've already researched that, haven't you?

P: Actually, I'm not sure, it's a debatable point. The lawyers I've talked to, one says
one, one says the other. The theory probably is, since the Secretary of State is
in charge of elections, she probably has the authority, but he is the chief law
enforcement officer of the state, so I can see where it would be rather confusing.
In Palm Beach, they got two different opinions and it was hard for them to decide
how to come to grips with that issue. When we look at the overview of all this,
there are a lot of conflicts. I don't think you had these problems, but in Miami-
Dade, there's been some anger about demonstrators coming in and stopping the
canvassing board from recounting. Did you have any activities like that?

R: None, no.

P: What was your reaction to that?

R: I've never had to react to anything like that.

P: Good. Ion Sancho, who is the supervisor of elections in Leon County, said that
money had been requested before the election for voter education and the
governor refused to give any money. Do you think that was a mistake by the

R: I don't know. That's an interesting theory. Would it have helped the public had
they been better educated? That's a theory at this point, isn't it?

P: I know that's an important part of your responsibility to educate the voter. What
do you do locally to make sure that people are aware of the issues and know
how to vote?

R: Right now, we are demonstrating our voting equipment [at] every place possible.
We were at the Martin County Fair. This week we are starting in every library,
we have voting equipment in every library for a full week. We have conducted
four municipal elections and will conduct another city election tomorrow. We are
displaying our equipment at every condominium, every meeting that we are
invited to. We have been to Riverside Park, we even conducted the Ridgeway
Mobile Home Park directors election for them.

P: What about going to the schools?

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R: We have been to schools, we're going to more. We're going to all the Publix
[supermarkets]. We've been to the mall. We're going back to the mall. We're
going everywhere that we can go.

P: Has the response been good?

R: It's been very good.

P: Do you think there will be an increase in voter participation as a result of this

R: Yes, I think there will.
P: Has there already been in the municipal elections?

R: I'm sorry, I haven't really checked that to be positive about the turnout increase in
the municipal election. I do know that the interest is there.

P: How has this experience changed your concept of your job?

R: Can't say that it has.

P: Certainly, a lot more people know what you do than did before. You've become
a much more public figure than before. Has that impacted you in any way?

R: I found out there's a difference in the words being famous and being infamous.

P: I know Theresa LePore, of course you didn't have the impact that she had, is still
suffering from the effects of that experience. It was apparently very difficult and
one of the things that has come up is that some of the press assumed that
election supervisors would be biased. If a Democrat were in a Democratic
county or a Republican in a Republican county, they would work for the benefit of
their party. Every supervisor I have talked to is outraged by that.

R: It's ridiculous. Supervisors of elections are not prejudiced or partisan.

P: It would be difficult to be so, wouldn't it?

R: Absolutely.

P: Everything is done in the sunshine [meaning open to public scrutiny according to
Florida's Sunshine law], is done in the open. You have observers. It would be
very hard to do anything.

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R: It would be impossible.

P: What do you think about Governor Jeb Bush's [Florida governor, 1999-present]
activities during the election? Do you think he was nonpartisan even though it
was his brother running for president?

R: I think he did what he needed to do.

P: Should we have a uniform statewide ballot on at least state races?

R: Well, we're going to.

P: Do you think that's a good idea?
R: Sure.

P: Its not so much an issue for you, but should there be statewide voting standards?

R: There [are]; elections are run by state law.

P: I mean in terms of how you judge the intent of the voter. There is a committee
working on some precise wording about that. That's almost no longer an issue if
they do away with all the old machines. It seems to me that the Vote-O-Matic
machine was where the greatest problem was. You had no problems, paper
ballots had no problems, the Opti-scan was good because it prevented over-
votes. That worked out pretty well. Where is your responsibility to make sure
that the ballot is clearly presented and accurately drawn up and where is the
responsibility of the voter to know what's on the ballot and to vote correctly?

R: Responsibility of the voter, that's an interesting thought there. We lay out the
ballot the way it is in the law book. We lay it down. We mail a sample ballot to
every registered voter. We have several ballots posted at the polls, all kinds of
[information]. They're also posted in the newspaper. I would say it's the
responsibility of the voter to have a look and be ready when they get to the
polling place.

P: In Palm Beach County, although there were four percent of the ballots that were
in some way fouled up, ninety-six percent of the people voted correctly. The
question is, is it a machine problem or voter problem?

R: I have no idea because in Martin County, [that problem] wasn't there.

P: There's clearly an issue for individuals to be responsible. For example, if they go

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to the wrong polling place after it's been listed in the newspaper and advertised,
that's not the fault of the supervisor. The legislature recently voted to do away
with the list of responsibilities for each voter. What do you think of that decision?

R: I thought it was probably a good idea to do away with it, because the voters
wouldn't know ahead of time and etc., etc, so what was the need of that anyway?

P: I think it was initially the desire to bring up just this point, that it was up to the
voter to know what the issues were, where to vote, how to vote, all that sort of
thing. Yet, a lot of members of the African-American community felt like they
were putting restrictions on them, making it more difficult for them to vote. As far
as I can understand and you can correct me on this, it's just advisory, is it not?

R: Yes.

P: Is there anything else that we haven't talked about that you would like to talk
about? I would just like to ask a couple of final questions. Who do you think won
the election in Florida?

R: The president. Just as you saw it reported.

P: Is there anything else that we haven't covered that you would like to talk about?

R: Can't think of anything.

P: On that point, I want to thank you very much for your time.

[End of the interview.]