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Tampa Bay elections supervisors seeking “cures” for mail ballot signature issues

The good news, local supervisors said, is that the number of “deficient” mail ballots is pretty small so far, less than half a percent.
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer talks about the upcoming election, Wednesday, September 30, 2020, during a press conference at the Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center, Tampa.
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer talks about the upcoming election, Wednesday, September 30, 2020, during a press conference at the Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center, Tampa. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Oct. 29, 2020

In Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Craig Latimer’s office, a team of about six employees are working full-time to “cure” defective mail ballots that otherwise would go uncounted — ballots with unsigned envelopes or signatures that don’t match voter records.

As the state conducts an election far more dependent than any before on mailed votes, other area supervisors are doing the same, seeking to rescue votes.

The good news, local supervisors said, is that the number of “deficient” ballots is pretty small so far, less than half a percent, and at least some of those will be cured.

Some numbers:

In Hillsborough County, 815 ballots had been received as of Thursday morning with signature problems, out of 288,350 total mail ballots returned, and 354 ballots had been cured.

In Pinellas, out of 306,670 returned as of Thursday, 827 had signature problems and 373 had been cured.

In Polk, 382 ballots out of 112,461 had been rejected by the canvassing board, but some still may be cured; 250 had already been cured, some before going to the board.

Pasco election officials said they weren’t able to provide figures to the Times on deadline.

Latimer said mail balloting is working well, noting the number of uncured deficient ballots so far is less than 0.2 percent.

“When you have 99.9 percent doing it correctly, that’s not bad,” he said.

Polk Supervisor Lori Edwards said when a signature doesn’t match, her office checks whether two people in a household got mixed up and signed each other’s ballots. In that case, she says, her canvassing board counts both ballots – but that could vary from county to county.

Not all deficient ballots should be cured, she said. “Some are in the area of fraud” — the signature doesn’t match because the ballot fell into the wrong hands.

But, Edwards said, “It genuinely makes us happy when a ballot is cured.”

Elections staff contact the voters to advise them how to cure a ballot. The voter can come to the office, or usually can mail, email or fax verification.

“Some say they just don’t want to or don’t have time,” Latimer said. “The voter has to want to do this.”

County party boosts Kemp, Gray

The Hillsborough County Democratic Party has given $274,000 to local candidates in this election cycle, with County Commissioner Pat Kemp and School Board member Lynn Gray as the top recipients, said party executive director Mark Hanisee.

Lynn Gray is running for re-election to the Hillsborough County School Board.
Lynn Gray is running for re-election to the Hillsborough County School Board. [ Courtesy of the Lynn Gray campaign ]

That comes, Hanisee added, at the end of a record fundraising year for the party, totaling $416,256.

Kemp is locked in a tight race with Republican fellow Commissioner Sandy Murman, who’s seeking to move from her district seat into Kemp’s countywide seat.

The party has given Kemp $50,000, the maximum allowed.

Murman, heavily backed by the local real estate development industry, has raised $868,987 to Kemp’s $249,873 in what insiders say is probably the highest-spending commissioner race in county history.

Gray, who has received $31,000, faces a challenge from Sally Harris in a non-partisan race in which the two local parties are lining up behind their favorites.

The party has also given smaller amounts to Nadia Combs and Jessica Vaughn, Democrats in competitive school board races against Republican-backed candidates Steve Cona and Mitch Thrower, respectively.

The local party has given less to local legislative candidates, who are backed by the state party. But Democrats Jessica Harrington, Julie Jenkins and Andrew Learned, all in competitive state House races, have each received about $10,000, Hanisee said.

Expert: Accusation against Cohn no big deal

An accusation against Democratic Congressional candidate Alan Cohn, made by his Republican opponent, of accepting an illegal campaign contribution is a minor paperwork matter that federal authorities likely would ignore, according to a non-partisan campaign finance expert.

The accusation was made by Republican Scott Franklin in the Congressional District 15 race for the East Hillsborough-Lakeland-Clermont seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover.

Neil Combee, a Republican former candidate for the same seat now running for Polk County commissioner, filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission on the matter, publicized by the Franklin campaign.

The accusation “might be a technically accurate reading of the law, but I would anticipate that the FEC would exercise its discretion to not pursue any enforcement action,” said Brendan Fischer, campaign finance law expert with the Campaign Legal Center, a non-partisan watchdog group.

“It doesn’t appear that there was any effort to conceal or accept an unlawful contribution.”

Cohn participated in a joint fundraising committee with other candidates, receiving $235,000. The joint committee had previously filed a statement of his participation and filed the required fundraising agreements made with Cohn’s campaign.

But Cohn’s campaign neglected to file a statement authorizing the committee to raise money for him until four days after the contribution.

The complaint and the Franklin campaign said that makes it an illegal campaign contribution.

Koster sued over 2016 wreck

A Lutz woman is suing Republican legislative candidate Traci Koster over injuries she says she received in 2016 when Koster rear-ended her car at an intersection in downtown Tampa.

The injury victim, Kamieo Reilly, said in an interview that Koster falsely told her and an investigating police officer that she had auto insurance, and that as a result, no police report was filed.

Traci Koster is the Republican candidate for Florida House District 64.
Traci Koster is the Republican candidate for Florida House District 64. [ Traci Koster ]

Reilly said she has since struggled to find a lawyer to represent her in a case with no insurance company involved, and that Koster has rejected settlement offers. Reilly and her husband filed the lawsuit in August, which seeks damages exceeding $30,000.

Koster didn’t respond to repeated telephone, email and text messages this week for comment.

Contact William March at wemarch@gmail.com