Florida's patented electoral circus bounded into the realm of the surreal Friday with a messy airing of gripes and an embarrassing discovery.

Constance Kaplan, director of the largest elections office in the state, spent the day trying to explain why the 2002 election data that she had been telling everyone were irretrievably lost were not lost after all. In fact, the data -- audits of the troubled 2002 governor's primary and general election -- were on a computer disk in a folder among "books and bookcases and old reports" in the conference room next to her office.

"It's like watching Laurel and Hardy," said Bobbie Brinegar, president of the Miami-Dade County League of Women Voters. "I don't know why anyone needs to watch these reality TV shows; they could just as easily watch voting issues in Florida."

Kaplan's chagrined announcement came after days of searing criticism following news reports that a group -- the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition -- had learned through a public records request that audits of the 2002 governor's elections had been erased by two computer crashes. The headline-grabbing revelation prompted county commissioners to schedule a voting workshop with election officials Friday to try to untangle the mess.

But a secretary in Kaplan's office turned out to be the biggest player of all. While Kaplan was giving a television interview about the controversy Friday morning, the secretary -- Teresita Milanes -- was rummaging through the conference room and found the lost data.

The discovery did not save Kaplan from a public scolding.

"We don't intend to be the laughingstock of the nation," said Barbara Carey-Shuler, chairwoman of the county commission. "We will not tolerate a circuslike election."

Florida is one month from a U.S. Senate primary, and commissioners were even more mindful of the scrutiny to come during what commissioner Dorrin D. Rolle called "the big one," the presidential election Nov. 2.

"It's almost a flip of the coin whether we're going to have problems with the next election," commissioner Betty T. Ferguson told Kaplan.

Kaplan has sought to reassure voters by saying the lost -- then found -- data were merely archival records and did not affect vote totals. But her troubles have been compounded by her office's evolving explanation of the computer crashes. On Friday, for instance, she said the first crash happened in April of last year. Previously, she said it happened that May.

"We need to do better," she said.

Lida Rodriguez-Taseff, executive director of the Miami-Dade Election Reform Coalition, criticized Kaplan's office for failing to use audit records to confirm results collected by electronic voting machines. She also urged adoption of a "parallel testing" system for the Aug. 31 primary, a move resisted by Kaplan, who says voters would be reluctant to participate in the test because it involves some selected voters casting ballots on two separate machines as a cross-check.

Rodriguez-Taseff's choice of words said it all: "The machines," she insisted, "must be tested in battle."

Miami-Dade County Elections Supervisor Constance Kaplan meets with the county commission. Kaplan had said the data would never be seen again.