BROOKSVILLE — The 432 Republican voters who have already received their absentee ballot for the Aug. 26 primary election should just toss it. Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams soon will be sending out a new and improved, and legally correct, version.
Williams must reprint the Republican absentee ballots because of an error in how the original ballot listed the candidates for the District 1 County Commission seat. Incumbent Jeff Stabins landed as the first name on the ballot but state law requires candidates in the primary to be listed alphabetically.
Challenger Michael Burmann's name should have been first and it will be on the replacement ballot. Jon "Jaz'' Zydenbos is also running for the seat.
When Stabins brought the mistake to Williams' attention Wednesday, she scrambled to find some way to avoid the inconvenience and expense of reprinting the ballots. She learned that, while the state elections law requires alphabetical listing of candidate names, there is no prescribed penalty for violating the rule.
State elections officials confirmed that when the issue had arisen in the past, candidates signed waivers promising not to challenge the election and the ballots did not have to be reprinted.
Many political observers say that the top name listed on a ballot typically receives a certain number of votes simply by being first.
Williams asked Stabins and Burmann if they were willing to sign a waiver. Burmann e-mailed his response to Williams first thing Thursday morning.
He said he wanted the ballot printed correctly to eliminate any chance that a candidate could legally challenge the results based on the printing error.
Later in the day, Burmann issued a news release blaming Williams and explaining why he wanted the reprinting even though it could cost taxpayers about $5,000.
"This error on the part of the Supervisor of Elections is a no-win situation for the residents of this county. Because of this error, it will ultimately cost the taxpayers of this county,'' he states in the release.
"Although I am running on the platform of fiscal responsibility, at this time I am choosing not to sign the waiver because I believe in accountability and if I sign that waiver I will be, in essence, endorsing lack of accountability and choosing to ignore Florida statute."
Burmann said he also wants to reserve the right to challenge the election after all the votes have been counted.
"I do not believe there will be any way to truly validate the intent of the voter in this instance. How will the Supervisor of Elections know which ballot to count, if all of the "corrected ballots" are not returned? It is a real mess," Burmann stated.
"Ms. Williams' No. 1 priority should be to ensure the integrity of the election. For her to ask candidates to sign a waiver that allows her to use a ballot that does not conform to Florida statutes is inappropriate. When Ms. Williams was made aware of the error, her only truly correct response should have been to acknowledge the error, and immediately take action by reprinting a statute-conforming ballot."
Williams said the new ballots could be ready to send out as soon as Saturday. The printer was asked to print 19,000 of the corrected absentee ballots. Williams said she had no problem with Burmann asking for the reprinting.
"He wants to do things right and so do I,'' she said.
Williams issued a news release late Thursday explaining that if the incorrect ballots were filled out and returned, they would be set aside. If no valid ballot is received from that voter, the votes on the incorrect ballot would be transferred to a correct ballot under the supervision of the canvassing board.
"To err is human and we are all human,'' Williams wrote in the release. "Making an honest mistake is not a sign of incompetence. I have worked in elections for over 30 years and I have led this office since 2001.
"In my tenure as Supervisor of Elections, it has been and always will be my mission to ensure the integrity of the electoral process. To this end, I have corrected the oversight on the ballot and will continue with the election process as mandated by Florida Law.''
When asked his reaction to Burmann's choice to push for the ballot to be printed correctly, Stabins said, "That's why I had called her (Williams) in the first place. It looks like we agree on this issue.''
Stabins said that neither he nor his opponents have done anything wrong and the ballots needed to be reprinted.
"I think it really needs to be done,'' Stabins said. "If I were the supervisor of elections, I'd consider spending money out of my own pocket to fix my mistake.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.