BROOKSVILLE — Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams said Wednesday that she may have to cancel out roughly 500 absentee ballots sent out recently because of an error in the order of candidates.
If the candidates affected by the botched ballots agree not to sue over the election results, however, Williams could use the tainted tallies and avoid spending the estimated $5,000 reprinting and mailing costs.
All of this left first-time candidate Michael Burmann between a rock and a hard place Wednesday night.
The ballots mailed to Republicans mistakenly list the County Commission candidates in District 1 out of order. They should have been listed alphabetically as Burmann, Jeff Stabins and Jon "Jaz'' Zydenbos but Stabins name was listed first.
When first contacted about the error on Wednesday, Williams told the Hernando Times that she was going to change the ballot only because a question had been raised by a candidate. She said "there is no law that says they have to be'' in alphabetical order.
But Florida Statute 101.151 states "the names of candidates for each office shall be arranged alphabetically as to surnames on a primary election ballot.'" Jennifer Davis, spokeswoman for the state Division of Elections confirmed that the statute applies in this instance.
When asked a second time later whether the law required names to be alphabetical, Williams still said it did not. But she said she would send out new ballots "in order for it not to be perceived as (giving) any special treatment.''
Davis said there are no penalties in the law for a mistake. The only difficulty arises if a candidate sues over the outcome of an election.
Williams met late Wednesday with County Attorney Garth Coller, who also serves as the attorney for the Hernando County Canvassing Board, which oversees elections.
Coller and Williams talked to both Stabins and Burmann to find out if they were willing to waive the alphabetical listing requirement and agree formally not to sue over the election results.
Burmann said late Wednesday that he was asked to give a quick response and felt he was being put in an unfair situation.
He said that he has heard that being the first name in a race on the ballot wins a candidate extra votes, which could be decisive in a three-person contest. While he didn't want to feel responsible, or be blamed, for costing county taxpayers to have the ballots redone, "I also don't want to lose the election.''
At press time, Burmann said he wanted to consult with his supporters before making a decision. He told Williams that he would make his choice today.
"It becomes a really, really tough decision,'' he said.
Stabins said he was talking to a supporter on the phone Wednesday morning who told him that he had just received his absentee ballot. Stabins asked the supporter to check the ballot to be sure his name was there. The friend congratulated him for being first on the ballot and Stabins said he was shocked.
Stabins said he immediately called Williams, who was not aware of the problem. She checked an absentee ballot and told Stabins that a mistake was made by the printer and that the ballots would be re-done.
"I want a fair race. I don't want any unfair advantages,'' Stabins said. "It's wrong and it must be fixed.''
Williams said if Burmann chooses not to sign the waiver, she will send out another, corrected, ballot to the 500 people who received bad ballots. A note will be attached explaining to them that the first ballot was not valid and they must fill out another.
If a voter has already filled out and mailed out their incorrect ballot, Williams said it would be flagged once it is received and not counted.
The elections office's system will recognize only one ballot from each voter, she said.
She said of the mistake that "no harm has been done'' and that this kind of error has happened before and been resolved through a waiver.
The mistake brought an immediate response from one of Williams' opponents in her own hotly contested reelection bid. Republican Shirley Anderson sent out a press release blasting Williams, saying the mistake would affect military and overseas voters.
"It is clear the ballots were printed in error and cannot be corrected without additional taxpayer expense,'' Anderson said in the statement. "It is the supervisor's job to proof the ballot prior to printing … This kind of incompetence must stop.''
Williams said that everyone makes mistakes and now she was trying to "do the right thing'' and find a solution that would satisfy everyone.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1434.