Vote recount stokes county's suspicions

CRAWFORDVILLE — Two days after the polls closed, an orange bag filled with ballots was discovered at the elections office in this small, Old Florida town in the shadow of Tallahassee.

That would be alarming enough here in Wakulla County, where two bitterly fought races are in the midst of a recount, one separated by eight votes.

But it was only the latest sign of trouble.

Already three bags stuffed with votes had arrived with different seals on them. And it took nearly two hours for those ballots to be delivered from a precinct in Sopchoppy, 20 minutes away — 10, if you take the back roads.

So on Friday, as the recount for sheriff and a County Commission seat slogged on, suspicions were near overflow in this rural community that has been riven before by accusations of stolen elections.

"It's like dog poo. You can smell it out there in the yard, but you just haven't stepped in it," said Anne Ahrendt, 49, one of about two dozen people watching the recount. "There's something going on here. I'm sure of that."

What, of course, is a matter of argument playing out in hushed huddles outside the elections office.

But it's a clear metaphor for a larger battle in Wakulla County, a culture clash between the old-line conservative Democrats who have run things here for generations and newcomers, some of them Republican, who have different ideas of doing things, and don't mind saying so.

"They are vicious, mean people," lifelong resident and bank executive Scott Gaby said from the cab of his GMC Sierra, the sweet smoke from Hamaknockers Bar-B-Q wafting through the parking lot. "Our community is in absolute turmoil because of them."

The fault lines run through culture and religion, education and wealth. They cross swaths of undeveloped land that longtime residents want to develop and newcomers want to preserve. To them, the county should remain lush and unspoiled, a place as easygoing as a glassbottom boat ride at Wakulla Springs State Park. And the divide is seen in disputes over whether to expand Highway 319 or whether another fast food restaurant is really necessary.

"You can cut it in a lot of different ways," said Jack Leppert, 73, a retired state employee who bought property here in 1988. "We're at a nexus. There's a sea change, and a lot of people are afraid of what that would mean."

The face of the old guard is Sheriff David F. Harvey, first elected in 1976. Harvey, a lifelong resident, has been credited for building a professional agency but criticized for not detailing his budget and for having a top-heavy administration. Some assert his office goes easy on people with firm community roots and comes down hard on those without close ties.

Harvey is also intimately involved in business deals that have made him a wealthy man. Some of those connections have leapt into the recount mess as land ties have been established between the sheriff and the county attorney, Ron Mowrey, who is legal counsel to the Wakulla County Canvassing Board.

Harvey refused comment Friday through his lawyers. Mowrey scoffed at any suggestion of a conflict of interest. But later Friday, Mowrey stepped down from the board.

Challenging the sheriff is Charlie Creel, a veteran Florida Highway Patrol officer who worked security for Gov. Lawton Chiles' administration. Creel, 55, says he wants to open the budget books and address a burgeoning drug problem.

But as of Friday, Creel was trailing Harvey by 48 votes among some 15,000 cast. The outcome is not expected until next week.

The other recount involved the Wakulla County Commission District 5 seat. Lynn Artz, who is aligned with the new political faction, was leading by eight votes over Jim Stokley. The newcomers already have two of the five commission seats so the balance of power rests in the outcome.

Stepping outside of the recount room Friday, Artz said she has faith in the process but said there are enough questions about what happened between Election Day and now to raise questions.

"There's a history of corruption here," she said.

In 2004, Artz filed a lawsuit after she lost a Democratic primary for County Commission by three votes. The suit alleged seven felons voted in the race, but was dropped.

The questions this time around span Wakulla County — the orange ballot bag came from Panacea — but the focus is on Sopchoppy, a town of 1,300 registered voters with a history of late deliveries of ballots.

Here's how the day went Tuesday in Sopchoppy:

About 2:40 p.m., the lone optical scan machine jammed. According to Mowrey, the county attorney, workers tried to retrieve the ballot but it dropped into the bin with the others.

Then, shortly before the polls closed at 7 p.m., two men showed up. They were not on the voting rolls but workers let them cast provisional ballots. That ate up more time, Mowrey said.

Poll workers slipped thick piles of ballots into black election bags and attached red twist seals. But they twisted too hard, according to officials, and broke the seals. New ones had to be delivered.

From there, the ballots were driven to Crawfordville. But it being dark and the road winding, the driver did not want to go too fast. "She's an old lady," Mowrey said.

"That's it," he said. "There's nothing suspicious here."

So it stands, myriad questions. It's hard to go far without someone talking about election conspiracy or how some are just trying to invent trouble. County elections chief Sherida Crum strained to make sense of what was on her hands.

"We just have some people — oh, gosh, I don't want to say the wrong thing — that just don't trust anybody. … It's a very messed up community. I'm moving, by the way, when I retire."

Vote recount stokes county's suspicions 11/07/08 [Last modified: Friday, November 14, 2008 10:23am]

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