The race for Hernando County supervisor of elections comes down to whether, after eight years, the status quo is working to a voter's liking, or it is time for a change.
The three candidates vying for the job share some similar viewpoints. All see a need to find ways to encourage more residents to vote.
However, the thrust of the challenge by Shirley Anderson and Gus Guadagnino to incumbent Annie Williams is whether the job has been done as efficiently and competently as it could be.
Williams, a Democrat, began her career in the elections office as a 17-year-old clerk, and over the years moved through the ranks to the position of assistant supervisor before she won election to the office in 2000. During her eight-year tenure, the number of people on the voter rolls in Hernando has risen nearly 24 percent as the county has grown.
However, in recent months the office has suffered some gaffes under Williams' reign, providing plenty of fodder for her opponents.
Last week, 86 absentee ballots mailed to residents in Spring Hill on Sept. 20 did not include either the Spring Hill Fire Rescue commission race or the referendum question on district independence. Williams called the mistake "a clerical error."
In July, she had to toss out roughly 500 primary election absentee ballots sent out because of an error in the order of the candidates. The redo cost taxpayers about $5,000.
The two incidents drew the ire of Republican challenger Anderson, who has fired off several news releases questioning whether Williams is fit for the job.
A native Floridian who moved to Spring Hill in 2002, Anderson, 50, ran a construction business with her former husband in Polk County before going to work for U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite when Brown-Waite was in the state Senate. Anderson is now the congresswoman's district director.
Her long association with Brown-Waite has helped Anderson create advantageous ties to the community. She attends many community functions to either represent or serve as the eyes and ears of the congresswoman.
Anderson says her decision to run for elections supervisor revolves around her lifelong enthusiasm for the voting process.
"I get excited on Election Day," she said. "The very thought that people can bring change through that process still amazes me."
Anderson says she has clearly defined ideals when it comes to the role of elections supervisor. She believes that voters should be able to trust that the office will be fair, efficient and, above all, problem-free.
"People need to be able to trust that their vote is going to be counted — it's as simple as that," she said. "My goal is to make certain that there are never any unanswered questions after an election."
Anderson targets Williams for not adhering to what she calls "sound management principles and fiscal responsibility," including not always taking advantage of the cheapest way to mail sample ballots. If elected, Anderson said, one of her first tasks will be to conduct an audit of the office to find ways to reduce spending.
"It's not fair when other departments are tightening their belts to have an elections office that is wasteful," Anderson said.
Anderson said she would seek new ways to increase voter education and interest by increasing outreach efforts through veterans programs, civic organizations and schools.
"I think the best way to attract new voters is to make them comfortable with the process," she said.
An unsuccessful Republican candidate for the election supervisor's post in 2000, Guadagnino opted to run as a no-party candidate this time around because he feels that the office should be devoid of political influence.
"Of all the constitutional offices that should be absolutely neutral and have no perception of favoritism, the supervisor of elections is at the top of the list," Guadagnino said. "Political party registration means no more to me than a person's gender, age, race or religion."
The 54-year-old owner of Joni Industries has long distinguished himself in community service in Hernando. He currently serves as president of the Hernando County Education Foundation and is on the community advisory board of the Hernando County Jail as well as the Oak Hill Hospital advisory board. In addition, he is a past president of the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce.
Although not as vocal as Anderson in his criticism of the incumbent, Guadagnino says there are problems that need fixing.
"From what I can see, it's not being run right," he said. "It's an office that depends on the people's trust. Lose that and you have nothing."
Guadagnino says one of his primary goals will be to heighten awareness among voters. He also proposes a host of school-related activities that he hopes will get kids excited about taking part in the election process at an early age.
"It's the fundamental part of our democracy," he said. "We need to do whatever we can to get them involved."
Guadagnino, who earned 43 percent of the vote in 2000, acknowledged that his no-party candidacy probably has angered a lot of the county's Republicans, who see him as an obstacle to Anderson's success in the race.
"I'm not doing this for any reasons other than my own," he said. "I want the residents of Hernando County to be the most conscientious and inspired voters in Florida."
The first African-American to win countywide office in Hernando, Williams, 52, is certainly familiar with the job. In her 30 years at the elections office, she has done everything from sweeping floors to programming computers.
As she did during her 2000 campaign when she took office, Williams believes her experience and not the size of her campaign coffers will convince voters that she is the right choice. To date, she has raised just a little over $1,200 in contributions, compared with Anderson, who has raised nearly $30,000, and Guadagnino, who has more than $19,085 in his war chest.
She also points out how much the office has changed in eight years, including the addition of more than 23,000 names to the county's voter rolls.
"I don't think (my opponents) realize just how big this job is," Williams said. "It's one thing to look at it from outside, but you need to be doing it every day to see how many facets there are."
Williams says she makes no excuses for the mistakes of her office, and acknowledges that she needs to be more watchful.
"It's part of my job to get beat up," she said.
A strong proponent of voter education, Williams has been responsible for hiring the elections office's first community relations coordinator. And Williams points to her efforts at bringing school-age children closer to the process. She and her staff are regularly involved in activities such as school mock elections and community gatherings. Her office recently joined forces with Chick-fil-A in Spring Hill to sponsor an "I Voted" sticker-collecting contest for kids.
"Those types of things are very important to me because kids learn to imitate their parents," she said. "I want to continue working with them and keep them interested so that one day they too will be excited about being part of the process."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.