BROOKSVILLE — A letter sent by the local Republican Party urging independent voters to switch their affiliation is spurring confusion and anger among some residents who think the Hernando elections office was somehow involved.
A news release that Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams sent Tuesday to clear up any confusion has, in turn, drawn biting words from Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Hernando Republican Executive Committee.
The letter signed by Ingoglia that went to no-party voters reminds them they cannot vote in partisan primary elections.
"By not participating in the primary, you are effectively giving up your right to have your voice heard while others are choosing the general election candidates for you!" the letter states.
The letter includes a voter registration application and a stamped envelope with the elections office's Brooksville address in the center and the upper left corner. A small box at the bottom of the letter includes the disclosure, required by law, that the mailing is a paid political advertisement approved by the local party.
"We are not asking you for money," the letter says. "We are asking you to help us make the Republican Party stronger as an alternative to the liberal policies and class warfare agenda of our current 'leaders' in D.C. today."
By Wednesday afternoon, seven people had called the elections office with complaints, asking why the office wasted taxpayer dollars by sending the letter and stamped return envelopes, said operations director Liz Townsend.
In addition, six recipients returned the letters with some kind of disgruntled message, though it's unclear if those were meant for the Republican Party or the elections office, she said.
"But the phone calls were definitely meant for us," she said.
Supervisor of Elections Williams told Townsend to issue the news release Tuesday.
"Voters have been led to believe that the Hernando County Supervisor of Elections office has sent a letter to them asking them to switch to the Republican Party," the release stated. "THIS IS NOT THE CASE!"
The envelope with the elections office as the return address and the fact that there is no contact information for the local Republican Party is likely a source of the confusion, Townsend said. At least two recipients called the elections office asking for contact information for the party.
Ingoglia, who also serves as vice chairman of the state party, released a statement apologizing for any confusion the letters caused voters or inconvenience to the elections office.
But he noted that the letter clearly states it's a paid advertisement. The stamped, addressed envelope was included because the Hernando Republican Executive Committee is not registered as a third-party registration organization that can accept completed forms.
Ingoglia then lashed out at Williams, calling the release "nothing short of political cronyism in an election year, while trying to garner favor for her handpicked successor Elizabeth Townsend."
Townsend, a Democrat, is running for elections supervisor along with three Republicans.
"For Ms. Williams to insinuate that we were 'leading voters to believe' that the SOE did the mailing is disingenuous," Ingoglia wrote. "In my opinion, she is playing politics with the voters of this county on behalf of the local Democrat Party. ... Maybe Ms. Williams should spend less time on us, who are adhering to the new election law, and focus her attention on her own local Democrat Party that is not complying with it."
The letter did not include contact information for the party to ensure no recipient sent the letter back to the party instead of the elections office, Ingoglia told the Times in a follow-up email. The party sent 1,500 letters.
That "means that 99.2% of the people we sent the mailer to did not have a problem with it at the time her press release was sent out," Ingoglia wrote. "I believe this statistic reinforces our belief that this was political grandstanding by Ms. Williams on behalf of the local Democrat Party."
"That is so far from the truth," Williams said. "This whole thing has been blown out of proportion. The intent of the press release was to clarify that the mailing did not come from the elections office. It was the right thing for us to do."
She said Townsend made her own choice to run. Williams said as a member of the local canvassing board, she is forbidden by law to endorse or a support a candidate and would not even if she could.
"Anyone who knows me knows I don't play politics," she said.
Asked about the reference to local Democrats breaking the law, Ingoglia said the party was signing up voters at the Weeki Wachee Swamp Fest, apparently before signing up as a third-party registering organization. Hernando Democratic Executive Committee chairman Steve Zeledon did not return a message Wednesday afternoon, but Townsend, who was at Swamp Fest, said the party was handing out addressed envelopes for voters to return registration forms themselves. The Democratic Executive Committee has since registered as a third party, she said.
At any rate, Republicans' effort worked. By Wednesday afternoon, Townsend said, 24 independent voters had used the forms and envelopes to switch to the GOP.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.