Sunday, May 27, 2018
Politics

Hillsborough supervisor confident about his first official 'Election Day'

Craig Latimer and I have something in common.

Like all journalists, I strive to report the news and not be a part of it. It's much the same for Latimer, the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections.

If all goes well on Aug. 26, results will roll in, complaints will be minimal and the fact that this is Latimer's first election as supervisor will be a mere footnote.

But if Latimer ends up answering more questions about technical gaffes than turnout, he will be singing Oh, What A Night for all the wrong reasons.

The new supervisor expressed confidence this week, and with good reason. Although this will be his first election since winning election in August 2012 and taking office in January 2013, Latimer spent four years as the chief of staff in the supervisor's office, so he has been around the block.

The county received praise from Florida's secretary of state after the 2012 elections as one of the top-performing large counties. The office had tabulated all the votes and reported the results by 10:30 p.m.

Impressive.

Latimer is confident but not cocky. He sounds like a man planning for a World Cup soccer tournament when he describes the task at hand.

"What we do is throw a party for more than 700,000 people with over 300 different venues," Latimer said. "We have to train staff to make sure the people have a positive experience. We have to get the equipment to the venues and we have to count all the voters accurately and report the results in a timely manner."

Handling such a logistical challenge seems to excite Latimer. He gives a tour of the election service center in Brandon with the glee of a real estate agent on one of those HGTV shows. Even the neatly stacked plastic post office boxes used for mail-in ballots drew a cheery description.

Yes, he comes across as a little nerdy, pointing at tabulating machines and copiers, but it is this attention to detail that served him as a longtime Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office employee. After moving up through the ranks in the homicide division, Latimer took on the task of organizing the department's first-event child protection division with more than 100 civil investigators.

So, planning and organizing make his blood flow a little faster and so does technology. The office will implement a pilot program with new computer tablets replacing the old poll books in 10 percent of the precincts. From all appearances, the tablets will create greater efficiency and shorter lines, but Latimer said the office will move slowly because there's "still a lot of changing technology out there."

Another change continues to be the number of people voting by mail or through early voting. In 2012, 62 percent used one of those methods and Latimer welcomes the relatively new access.

"I don't want 753,000 voters to all show up on Election Day," Latimer said. "It would be mayhem."

Even if everything runs smoothly, Latimer may draw criticism if participation wanes. We know the turnout won't be close to 700,000, but election supervisors share in getting the vote out, never an easy task for August primaries in Florida.

Turnout for the August primary was 10 percent in 2008, 19 percent in 2010 and 16 percent in 2012. The office has taken steps to drive turnout higher through advertising on digital billboards and HART buses, registration drives and outreach programs including a presence on Facebook and Twitter.

For a primary, however, Latimer concedes some factors are beyond his control. He notes voters look at primaries much as they view the lottery: They don't play until the pot grows beyond $100 million and they don't vote until the general election. In 2012, 73 percent of Hillsborough's voters turned out for the presidential election.

I'm glad when Latimer shows off a 35-page, multicolor Election Day plan like a rancher showing off a prized steer. We need someone who invests in the painstaking process because when it comes to the elections, we never want to be the county that wrecks the process for the rest of the state.

If you don't believe me, just ask people in Palm Beach County about 2000 or Miami-Dade County about 2012.

That's all I'm saying.

Follow Ernest Hooper @hoop4you.

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