Taking the Blame, Not the Bill: Florida Write-In Error to Cost Brevard $13K

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We’ve seen lots of news lately about how the uncertainty about election laws or procedures – usually related to last-minute or long-running litigation – is costing local election officials time and money … including in Kansas, where a fight over the late withdrawal of a U.S. Senate candidate was one of this cycle’s top stories.

In Florida, however, a controversy has emerged regarding the withdrawal of a candidate whose name wasn’t on the ballot to begin with – and Brevard County is spending $13,000 because someone at the State of Florida forgot to make a phone call. Florida Today has more:

A communications breakdown between state and county elections officials looks like it will cost more than $13,000 in unanticipated expenses that will be picked up by Brevard County Supervisor of Elections Lori Scott out of her taxpayer-funded budget.

The glitch was the result of Kourtney Ann Waldron, a write-in candidate for Florida House in District 53, dropping out of the race last month.

Waldron on Sept. 11 notified the Florida Department of State’s Division of Elections of her decision to withdraw.

But the state did not pass the information on to Scott’s office before ballots were printed a week later. So the local ballots, including absentee ballots, included a line for a write-in candidate in the District 53 race.

This seems like a small matter; if voters don’t want to write in a candidate, they won’t (and usually don’t). But in this case the absence of nothing is really something given a quirk in Florida state election law:

Under Florida law, write-in candidates need to notify election officials of their intent to run. In races where there are no specified write-in candidates, no space is allotted for write-ins on the ballot. Only write-in votes for declared candidates are counted.

The situation with Waldron’s candidacy contrasts with what happened last month in Florida Senate District 16. In that instance, state elections officials informed Scott on Sept. 4 that a write-in candidate in District 16, Lloyd Stanton French, had withdrawn. That gave the automatic win to Republican incumbent Thad Altman.

“Normally, the Division (of Elections) alerts us,” Scott said in discussing Waldron’s withdrawal. “It just fell through the cracks.”

To its credit, the state does appear to be taking responsibility for the mistake:

In a written statement to FLORIDA TODAY, Florida Department of State Communications Director Brittany Lesser said: “Quality controls and cross-checks have been put into place to ensure that supervisors of elections will be notified immediately when a candidate withdraws.”

Unfortunately, this responsibility doesn’t extend to paying for the error:

Scott — who said she found out on Sept. 29 about Waldron’s withdrawal from a voter [!!?! – ed.] — decided she needs to inform voters that there no longer is a write-in candidate in the race.

So she mailed postcards to everyone who was sent an absentee ballot, will put an insert in the absentee ballot mailings still to go out, and will put notices at every voting booth during the early-voting period and on Election Day. Total cost: more than $13,000.

Scott said she asked state officials whether the state would pick up the cost, but they said no.

“It was not our error.” Scott said. “I personally feel it’s a cost that Brevard taxpayers should not incur.”

But it looks like they will. The money will come out of Scott’s budget, funded by county property taxes.

Chalk this up as another episode in the rocky relationship in Florida between the state and local election offices. On one hand, it seems obvious that the state should bear the costs for the obvious error – but even more, maybe it’s time for the state to reconsider the (somewhat oxymoronic) concept of declared write-in candidates in order to prevent this kind of mistake from occurring in the future. If the state wants to keep the idea of declared write-ins (part of the process of identifying truly unopposed candidates who can then be declared the winner without the need to take up ballot space) then the state needs to be more vigilant and responsive to ensure that the law doesn’t cost counties money unnecessarily.

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