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Stakes are high for Democratic elections chief in Republican Hernando County

Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams, right, reviews ballots with Kyro Morales, the assistant supervisor of elections.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams, right, reviews ballots with Kyro Morales, the assistant supervisor of elections.

BROOKSVILLE — Elections supervisors have a saying about Election Day.

"We don't care who wins or loses, we just hope they win big," said Susan Gill, who has served as elections supervisor in Citrus County since 1997.

A recount to confirm the results of an election — especially when the margin is just a handful of votes — is an extra step Gill and fellow supervisors would rather avoid in the sometimes messy democratic process.

On Tuesday, as her office worked to confirm the results of two tight races a week after Election Day, Hernando Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams said her nerves remained free of frays.

Florida statutes clearly outline the recount process, and her office simply executes, Williams said.

"It's more of a test on the system," she said. "We have faith in the system. It's just getting the job done."

Still, Williams and other supervisors acknowledge that a recount is an important test of their offices and management skills.

Supervisors, who are elected to four-year terms, don't get written evaluations from bosses. Their job performance is judged by voters based on glitch-free elections, and recounts are another way for the electorate to gauge the performance. Potential opponents await a misstep or meltdown.

For Williams, who earns $101,733 a year and is up for re-election in 2012, the political stakes are especially high. After the Nov. 2 general election, the 54-year-old Brooksville resident is one of only two elected Democrats left in office in a county dominated by Republicans. She drew a formidable GOP challenger two years ago.

So Williams clearly relished the moment Wednesday when she walked up to the counter in the elections office in the county government center and started clapping to celebrate a glitch-free recount of more than 59,000 ballots. The primary and general elections had gone smoothly, too.

"Thank you, staff," Williams said as she applauded. "What a wonderful job."

The count confirmed the Election Day results in races for School Board and the Spring Hill Fire Rescue Commission. The School Board race was decided by 38 votes; the fire-rescue contest saw an improbable one-vote margin ultimately increase to five votes. All four candidates involved said they had faith in the accuracy of the final results.

The recount happened at the appropriate pace, Williams said. Supervisors had until today to submit final official results to the state. And even in a mechanized age of instant gratification, the process takes time based on a timetable set largely by state law, she said.

"That's why we're here, to conduct elections fairly, accurately and efficiently," she said, "and I think we did all of that in this election year."

• • •

The word "recount" dredges up particular fears in the Sunshine State, which earned the unfortunate "Flori-duh" moniker after the fiasco with butterfly ballots and hanging chads in the presidential election a decade ago.

"After the 2000 election, 'recount' is almost a surrogate word for panic among elected officials and the public because they don't want to relive it," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida.

While technology has come a long way since then, recounts are not instantaneous and in fact can take more time. There is still a paper trail to check, but voters are willing to wait as long as supervisors show clear progress toward the confirmation of results, MacManus said.

"They would probably get more high marks from the public for erring on the side of taking longer," she said.

Recounts are required by law when the margin of victory is less than one-half of 1 percent. Williams, who started at the elections office in 1973 as a student working in the afternoons, was a veteran employee by 1992, when the office conducted a recount for a School Board race separated by three votes — the closest in the county's history up to that point. The office still used punch cards then, but the recount of more than 14,000 ballots took about three hours, according to a St. Petersburg Times account.

Hernando County now uses AccuVote voting machines, which scan paper ballots voters fill out in pen or pencil. They replaced the punch card system in 2000, allowing Hernando to avoid some of the headaches other counties suffered in the presidential election that year, the same year Williams was first elected.

Four years later, she oversaw a smooth recount for a Republican County Commission primary separated by 50 votes.

Though the results of this year's recount came eight days after Election Day, the actual process took 21/2 days.

County canvassing boards have some flexibility in setting the pace of the recount to get final results to the state by the second Sunday after Election Day, said Jennifer Davis, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of State.

Williams and the other two members of the canvassing board — County Commission Chairman John Druzbick and County Judge Donald Scaglione — made decisions with that deadline in mind.

The day after Election Day, the canvassing board counted provisional, absentee and touch-screen ballots. The unofficial results in the two races remained essentially unchanged: Retired educator Cynthia Moore had more votes than four-term incumbent Sandra Nicholson in the School Board race, and Ken Fagan was ahead of Rusty Amore in the race for a second seat on the Spring Hill fire board.

Voters who mark a provisional ballot and want to submit evidence of their eligibility have until 5 p.m. on the Thursday after the election to so, and unofficial results are due to the state by Friday. By that point, it's usually clear if there will be a recount for a statewide race. If so, local elections offices conduct recounts for local races at the same time.

The state gave official word on Saturday that there was no need for a statewide recount in the governor's race. Local counts typically begin Monday, as they did this time in Hernando.

Williams and her entire staff worked on the recount in some capacity. On Monday, she and the rest of her 11 employees were feeding ballots into 12 electronic scanners crammed into her office's tabulation room.

On Tuesday, they finished the machine recount and starting poring over stacks of so-called over- and under-ballots. State law mandates a count of these ballots for races with a margin of less than one-quarter of 1 percent. Staffers pulled out ballots with ambiguous dots, smudges and partial circles for review by the canvassing board. That review — the final step to confirm results — ended at lunchtime Wednesday.

Williams and the board decided to stop work by about 6 p.m. on Monday and Tuesday.

"I think that's reasonable," said MacManus, the USF professor. After an election, she said, "elections workers are exhausted like everybody else, and when you're tired it's much easier to make mistakes."

Logistics are also key factors, said Gill, the Citrus supervisor who was on the job in 2000 for what she called "the mother of all recounts."

"It's a matter of how many machines you can set up, how many staff do you have," Gill said. "It's easy to say put more people on the job, but do you have the space? The last thing you want to do is let things get out of hand. There are a lot of pieces of paper there, and you have to keep things organized, number one."

Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards oversaw two recounts in the August primary and one for the general election.

In the latter effort, Edwards had about 50 people working to recount about 163,000 ballots to confirm the outcome of a referendum related to tax exemptions for businesses. They started Monday and finished just before lunch on Tuesday — a day earlier than expected, Edwards said. Had they been required to count the over- and under-votes, "we'd still be counting," she said Wednesday.

Williams lost a key staff member during the process. Assistant elections supervisor Kyro Morales, who had just taken that post, worked his last day on Nov. 5.

Morales labored over the decision to take another job for personal reasons, Williams said. He gave plenty of notice and set his last day for what is typically a calm period after the Election Day storm. Williams said she was sad to see him go.

"He advanced so much in the responsibilities he took on," Williams said. She does plan to immediately fill the post, though.

Nicholson, the defeated School Board incumbent, is no stranger to the elections process or to Williams' office, having served on the canvassing board in 2008.

During this year's recount, Nicholson visited the office periodically to check the progress, peering through the window of the tabulation room. She left disappointed but satisfied on Wednesday.

"I have faith in the recount process," she said.

• • •

As a supervisor, there isn't much time to think about your own political future in the midst of a recount to determine the political destinies of others, said Edwards, the Polk supervisor.

"There are a lot of moving parts, so it generally takes all of the supervisor's attention," she said. "Pressure is inherent in this job, so anyone who has been running elections for any length of time, like Annie Williams or myself, learns how not to let the pressure distract you."

Williams faced some political pressure in 2008, when she dodged a double-barreled shot from two challengers in the general election.

Shirley Anderson, the district coordinator for U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, garnered plenty of money and support from the local Republican establishment. She also tried to capitalize on a couple of blunders Williams' office had made, first by failing to list candidates in the correct alphabetical order on a Primary Election ballot and then by leaving the Spring Hill Fire Rescue candidates and referendum off absentee ballots mailed to some voters inside the district.

Anderson took nearly 37 percent of the vote, her blow blunted by Brooksville businessman Gus Guadagnino, who ran as an independent. Together, Guadagnino and Anderson took 51.4 percent.

Even Anderson conceded last week that Williams' office did the job well this year. But that doesn't mean Anderson won't be back in 2012.

"I have absolutely not ruled anything out," Anderson said. "I have a passion for what that office does."

When asked if she planned to run in 2012, Williams demurred.

"Who knows what two years will bring," she said. "We'll just see how things work out."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Stakes are high for Democratic elections chief in Republican Hernando County 11/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 13, 2010 2:24pm]

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