Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Craig Latimer first ran for election in 2012 after the term of Phyllis Busansky, who died while in office. He had served as Busansky’s chief of staff after a long career with the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, where he had risen to the rank of major.
His office has geared up for the fall elections. Early voting in the primary starts Aug. 8 for the election that takes place on Aug. 23. The general election is Nov. 8. Latimer, 69, talked with the Tampa Bay Times on the day that his office sent out the vote-by-mail ballots to those who requested them.
How many vote-by-mail ballots did you send out?
Three hundred and twenty-two thousand. And that doesn’t include the 6,000 overseas we’ve already mailed a week ago. And we had our logic and accuracy test today also.
What is that?
By law before every election, this is every county in the state ― we conduct what’s called a public logic and accuracy test. We take a random sample of the tabulators that are used for early voting and election day, and then all over (with) our high speed scanners that we use for vote by mail, and we put what’s called a test deck in, so that we know what the outcome should be. We run them through the machine to make sure the machine is counting properly, that’s the accuracy part. And logic is that it can see every single spot on that ballot where a vote could be cast.
Has voting by mail become more popular?
It did during the pandemic, especially. Historically, we’ve had a third of our voters that vote by mail, a third vote early voting and a third vote on election day. But the pandemic kind of turned that around. We ended up with over 47 percent of our voters (who) voted by mail and actually 85 percent of our voters voted prior to election day.
What kind of turnout do you expect in the upcoming midterm elections?
Midterms generally have less turnout than the presidential general election, but we saw that kind of turn around in 2018. I think we ended up with like a 62 percent turnout where generally it’s in the 50 percent range, so I really expect it to be up. There’s so much talk going on out there right now that it’s really motivating people to get out to vote.
Though he lost Florida, President Joe Biden won Hillsborough County in 2020. Did you get any complaints of a rigged election?
I did actually have some Republican candidates who lost file a lawsuit against me. They never paid the filing fee so instead of a lawsuit it turned out to be a press release.
In the primary, we had a group that came down and actually paid (for a public records request), and they wanted to look at vote-by-mail ballots because their candidate — I don’t remember who it was — lost.
And they were allowed to do that?
They’re not allowed to touch the ballot. We had to hold it up for them and they could look at it. I don’t know what they were looking for but they can look at it.
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With former President Donald Trump saying the 2020 election was rigged, do you think other candidates will do that in the future?
We’re seeing a lot of scrutiny, if you will. People want to see more and want to get involved more. But it’s interesting, I told you about the logic and accuracy test. The other thing that takes place after the election, and this is again by law, is we have to conduct a post election audit. And I audited 100 percent of our ballots with a separate system, and we came out dead on. And people don’t know that.
There’s so much misinformation and mal-information out there that people, I’m just amazed at some of the things they ask me. One of the things: They don’t think we look at any signatures on the vote-by-mail return envelopes, which we do. We look at every single one.
Have you had any poll workers threatened?
We have not.
Is it harder to get poll workers?
We’re doing good with that. I’ve got to tell you, in 2020, the presidential primary was in March and that’s right when the coronavirus was ramping up, and we had several hundred poll workers who just didn’t show up on election day. And so that scared me. We had to shut the polling sites down because they stopped allowing any visitation in assisted living facilities (where) we had polling sites.
What we did was: We partnered with the Tampa Bay Chamber (of Commerce), the Tampa Bay Partnership (business leaders), and that opened the door to the Tampa Bay sports community, and we ended up with support from the chamber, the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Rays, the Lightning, the Rowdies, the Bucs, the whole Team Tampa Bay (University of South Florida) sports community. And national poll worker recruitment day was on Sept. 22 that year. They leveraged all their social media that day encouraging companies to let their people off to be poll workers, and let people off to vote and on and on. The end result of that is we had to turn away 2,900 people who signed up to be poll workers.
We haven’t had a real issue. Right now we’re wrapping up training for our 1,844 poll workers that we use in this primary election.
How did you decide to leave the sheriff’s office and join the supervisor of elections office?
I wasn’t really looking, to be truthful with you. Phyllis had asked me to join her. Immediately, we found some issues that were here; there had been some bad audits on the previous supervisor (Buddy Johnson). We found 800 ballots in a ballot box that had never been counted in a Temple Terrace race that was separated by 82 votes.
The thing that I’ve always loved about this is this is the gateway to democracy. This is where the rubber hits the road. We’re helping people who are eligible to be registered to get them registered, and if they are registered to get an opportunity to vote. That is what our entire nation and community is built on.
Do you worry about threats to the process? What do you think of state legislatures passing laws that make it difficult for some to vote?
Our association, our statewide association, we work really close together, and this is a total, total bipartisan group. Our goal is we’re here for the voters. We’re the best advocate. No matter what county you’re in, your supervisor is the best advocate for voting that you can have. We really try to work hard with the legislature on these things. There are some things that are in your wheelhouse and some that aren’t.
I’m on a national panel that’s having a conversation about these threats that are going on — poll workers and people in the election industry. It’s challenging in some areas. I think we’ve been very fortunate here. I will tell you and it probably won’t surprise you that my previous law enforcement experience enables me to be extremely vigilant, but it also has allowed for the connections. If there is an issue, I pick the phone up and there’s a reaction.
I’m part of a safe and secure election group that in a bipartisan manner is trying to get the word out exactly what we’re talking about, that these elections are fair. They are honest.
This last election, the 2020 election, all these wild things they came up with, every one of them has been debunked.
Go to votehillsborough.gov for more information.