Longtime Spring Hill resident Lori Eley was shocked by the robocall message she found waiting for her on her answering machine Monday.
In a voice reminiscent of an emergency weather alert, a man warns that Hernando County School Board candidate Jay Rowden is asking people to request to vote by visiting a certain website that might seem to be official.
"It is not," the message states. "It is a website owned by an officer of the Hernando County Democratic Party and is designed to trick you into giving up your email. This was an important voter alert."
The message then stated it was paid for by Voter Interest Group, a Republican-backed electioneering group in Tallahassee.
Eley was left with a distinct impression.
"It's pretty surprising" she said. "School Board elections are supposed to be nonpartisan."
The incident highlights the decidedly partisan nature of the supposedly nonpartisan District 3 School Board race.
On one side, Rowden, a former chairman of the Hernando County Democratic Executive Committee, is directing people to a website run by that organization. Meanwhile, the race's other candidate, Beth Narverud, has been supported by a host of mailers and robocalls from partisan electioneering groups and the Hernando County Republican Party.
Rowden says that there is nothing sinister in directing residents to the website and that he didn't do it to try to cull voter emails.
"I think it's a whole lot to do with nothing," he said.
Steve Zeledon, chairman of the Hernando County Democratic Executive Committee, said a member of the party set up a website, votehernando.com, to help voters register to vote or request an absentee ballot. He said hernandovotes.com, the Hernando Supervisor of Elections' website, is confusing.
The idea was to try to "make it simple and provide a portal that funnels people into whatever they want," Zeledon said. "Effectively, that's what we did."
The website also has a place for visitors to enter their name and email, though this is not required. Zeledon said the primary purpose of the site was to direct people to register. He said the group already get numerous emails that are voluntarily given to the elections supervisor.
"The whole idea that we're trying to scam email addresses from people — we don't," he said. "We have all we need."
None of this is illegal, says Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson, a Republican.
"This website is not illegal, but these tactics only lead to voter confusion and voter mistrust," she said in a statement. "If candidates truly wanted to assist voters, they would give them the direct link."
A disclaimer was added to the website indicating the page was created by the Democratic Party.
At least three different groups have paid for ads for Narverud, including the Hernando County Republican Party. Among other things, the ads tout her "conservative" perspective and her objection to the Common Core State Standards.
The Hernando County Republican Party and Narverud did not return messages seeking comment.
Rowden took issue with all the partisan dollars being poured into the race.
"I thought it was a nonpartisan race when I got into it," he said. "Evidentially, it's not."
Zeledon agreed, saying the local Democratic Party wouldn't put money into such a race.
"It would be completely inappropriate for us to do anything like that," he said. "The Democratic Executive Committee has not and never will support anyone in a nonpartisan race."
Contact Danny Valentine at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Follow @HernandoTimes.