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That demand for a recount of Hillsborough’s 2020 elections? Never mind

A lawsuit asked for more scrutiny of mail ballots, but never offered evidence of alleged irregularities
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer shows an "I Voted" sticker sent to people who voted by mail during the November 2020 general election. Latimer displayed the sticker during a Sept. 30, 2020, press conference at the Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center, Tampa. Three unsuccessful GOP candidates had challenged the election results, asking for a recount of mail ballots, but the trio has abandoned the lawsuit.
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer shows an "I Voted" sticker sent to people who voted by mail during the November 2020 general election. Latimer displayed the sticker during a Sept. 30, 2020, press conference at the Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center, Tampa. Three unsuccessful GOP candidates had challenged the election results, asking for a recount of mail ballots, but the trio has abandoned the lawsuit. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Mar. 29
Updated Mar. 29

TAMPA — Three Republican candidates from 2020 have abandoned their legal challenge seeking a recount of Hillsborough County’s mail-in ballots in last year’s general election.

“I no longer wanted to pursue it. I would rather put my money and my energy into focusing on 2022,” said Sally Harris, who lost a bid for the District 7 Hillsborough School Board seat to Democrat Lynn Gray.

Hillsborough County Commission hopeful Scott Levinson offered similar sentiment.

“We were so close. In my mind, I did want to see the votes, but you know what? It’s not worth it,” said Levinson. “I just realized it was time to move forward. I’m not going to be that guy.”

Levinson received 49.26 percent of the vote in losing to Democrat Harry Cohen for the open District 1 Hillsborough Commission seat.

The third plaintiff, congressional candidate Christine Quinn, also is not pursuing the case — a decision she said she reached after conferring with local and state party members.

“We felt it would be best not to spend our money on a lawsuit. We’re not going to change anything anyway. Nothing’s going to come of it. It’s going to be a big battle and maybe take years. So take that money and put it toward the 2022 election,” Quinn said.

Related: Three GOP candidates seek Hillsborough election recount

Their case remains open in Hillsborough Circuit Court, but the named defendant, Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer, has not been served with the complaint, his spokeswoman Gerri Kramer said this week.

The 120-day window to serve Latimer with the lawsuit and a subpoena demanding a legal response within 20 days expired Thursday. The Hillsborough Circuit Court Clerk’s Office issued the subpoena to the plaintiff’s attorney, Terri Gaffney, Nov. 25.

Harris, Quinn and Levinson filed suit Nov. 17, four days after Latimer certified the final results of the Nov. 3 election. The legal challenge contended the vote totals warranted additional scrutiny because voters were confused over required signatures on both the mail ballot and envelope. Some ballots may have needed to be rejected over signature issues, the suit stated, and it contended Latimer’s office sent ballots to people who were deceased.

The suit offered no evidence to substantiate the allegations and the bid for emergency action met stiff resistance in Hillsborough Circuit Court.

“The request for emergency relief is frivolous and a misuse of the court’s capacity to entertain true emergencies. No law was cited, nor were any concrete factual allegations made that could justify emergency treatment of this complaint,” Circuit Judge Steven Scott Stephens wrote in a Nov. 18 ruling.

Circuit Judge Caroline Tesche Arkin affirmed that denial Dec. 7 after the candidates’ attorney asked for the emergency motion to be reconsidered. The judicial rulings applied only to the request for expedited court action, not on the merits of the case.

Regardless, there has been no case activity since Arkin’s decision, according to the circuit court clerk’s web site. Quinn said she wrote to Gaffney on Dec. 16 on behalf of herself, Levinson and Harris and asked for the suit to be vacated.

The lawsuit stated each of the three Republican candidates “showed significant strength” in early voting and on Election Day, but “lost the election due to the large influx of mail-in ballots.”

That argument, however, appeared to apply only to Levinson, who lost by 2,655 votes to Cohen. Without mail ballots, Levinson led Cohen by more than 16,000 votes. Levinson said he plans to run for the commission again in 2022.

Gray led Harris by nearly 2,500 votes even without the vote-by-mail totals included. Her eventual margin of victory reached more than 45,000 votes. Harris said she, too, plans to run again.

Quinn had a 550-vote advantage over incumbent Democrat U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, out of 50,800 ballots cast for the District 14 congressional seat on Election Day. But the incumbent had a more than 7,000-vote lead when early voting results were included. Castor crushed Quinn in mail balloting for a final margin of victory of more than 76,000 votes.

“When you look at that spread, even if you went in and found voter fraud on 20,000 ballots, we still would not have won. It didn’t make sense” to continue the suit, said Quinn who said she is kicking off her 2022 campaign against Castor on April 1.

Prior to the election, Latimer said six employees worked full-time to “cure” defective mail ballots that otherwise would have gone uncounted — ballots with unsigned envelopes or signatures that didn’t match voter records.

By the end of the election, slightly more than 1,100 mail ballots had signature issues and workers were able to cure and count 814 of them. There were 291 ballots rejected for signature issues, Kramer said.

More than 717,000 people voted in the Hillsborough County general election, including nearly 338,000 who used mail ballots.

“I lost well enough to know even if there was missing ballots or whatever it wasn’t enough for me to win,” said Harris. “You’ve got to be honest when you look to see where you are.”