Vote-by-mail ballot drop-off sites to be provided at each Sarasota County of Elections office and at early voting sites this year, with constant monitoring by two staff members
During the presentation of his proposed 2023 fiscal year budget to the Sarasota County Commission, on June 23, Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner early on acknowledged controversies around the country in regard to voting.
“No one ever has questions about elections anymore,” he joked.
“People are so concerned about election integrity,” Commissioner Christian Ziegler, vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, said during the discussion. “It’s such a really heated issue.”
However, as Ziegler pointed out, Turner readily talks to community groups in an effort to make the county election process as transparent as possible. “That saves us a lot of grief and a lot of trouble,” Ziegler added.
He commended Turner for his leadership as the supervisor of elections. “Everyone has a lot of respect for you,” Ziegler told Turner, regardless of people’s party affiliations, or lack thereof.
“We appreciate that, Commissioner,” Turner responded, pointing to the “great team” he has. “They make it look easy,” Turner continued, “but they work really hard, as you know …”
In discussing his budget for the 2023 fiscal year, which will begin on Oct. 1, Turner reminded the board members that his funding requests are cyclical. The 2023 fiscal year budget he has proposed totals $7,632,096, which is down about 0.5% from the current budget, he added.
For 2024, with primaries for the Presidential Election, Turner said, he will need more money. “We’re trying to be good stewards,” he added, for FY 2023.
Nonetheless, he pointed out, he has learned that if circumstances arise during a fiscal year that dictate additional spending, he can ask the County Commission for the extra money. “I tell people in the community that this board has worked really well with the Supervisor of Elections Office,” Turner said.
He also emphasized, “We have not taken any private funding in elections.” The County Commission, he noted, pays for his budget out of its General Fund, which is made up largely of property tax revenue.
One initiative, on which his staff is working with County Administrator Jonathan Lewis and other county staff members, Turner continued, is the need for more space for his employees and equipment. “We’ve kind of outgrown our footprint. We’re making it work right now. … I’m just keeping this on the radar there …”
Moreover, referring to his FY 2023 budget, Turner acknowledged, “A lot of this will depend on what the Legislature proposes” after the 2022 General Election on Nov. 8. “We’ve had a lot of changes this year.”
Yet, his staff always is “ready to rise to the occasion,” Turner told the commissioners.
His staff comprises 31 full-time positions, he continued. In advance of the Aug. 23 Primary Election and the November General Election, he noted, he will need to hire about 750 poll workers, along with approximately 300 to 350 temporary staff members.
Challenges, procedures and statistics
“One question I get asked a lot,” Turner told the board members, is about the voting equipment used in the county. “The State of Florida certifies its own voting equipment,” he explained. The Governor’s Office “provides counties a menu of systems that we can choose from,” but it contains only two items, Turner said: equipment made by Election Systems & Software (ES&S) and Dominion Voting Systems. (Dominion was the focus of allegations of election fraud in the aftermath of the 2020 Presidential Election. On its website, the company says, “Lies and misinformation have severely damaged our company and diminished the credibility of U.S. elections, subjecting hardworking public officials and Dominion employees to harassment and death threats. Dominion is taking steps to right these wrongs through our judicial system.”)
The Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office has equipment produced by ES&S, Turner noted. The county purchased those machines in advance of the 2016 Presidential Preference Primary, he added.
Then Turner addressed one voting by mail change, as approved by the Florida Legislature.
Ballot drop-off sites — which state leaders refer to as Secure Ballot Intake Systems, Turner pointed out — will be “located in our offices” and at every early voting site this year, Turner said. Two staff members will be monitoring them “at all times,” he stressed.
Sarasota County never has had vote-by-mail ballot receptacles monitored by cameras 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he pointed out.
When Commissioner Ziegler asked about the drop-off boxes at the early voting locations, Turner replied that each of his offices — in downtown Sarasota, at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice and at Biscayne Plaza in North Port — plus each early voting site will have a Secure Ballot Intake System.
For the Aug. 23 Primary, Turner added, six early voting sites will be available; for the Nov. 8 General Election, nine. Among the latter, Turner said, will be a new one at the William H. Jervey Jr. Venice Public Library, located at 300 Nokomis Ave. S., on the island of Venice. Turner noted that the early voting site at the R.L. Anderson Administration Center, located at 4000 S. Tamiami Trail in Venice, is one of the busiest in the county.
For the 2020 General Election, Turner pointed out, “We had nearly 75,000 voters that used those [drop-off] receptacles” for vote-by-mail ballots. That was “probably one of the highest rates in the state of Florida.”
Turner further noted his belief that Sarasota County is the 13th largest by voting population in the state, “with nearly 350,000 registered voters and growing.”
“Thank you for your comments,” Commissioner Nancy Detert responded at the conclusion of Turner’s presentation. “I hope that reassures the general public, which we seem to have to constantly do [in discussions about elections].”
Then she told Turner, “I always thought it was odd that all 67 counties get a choice [of voting equipment]. “Do [the ES&S and Dominion] machines speak to each other?”
They do not, Turner replied. The Supervisor of Elections Office and the county Canvassing Board report election results directly to the Florida Secretary of State’s Office, he added, which aggregates the results.
He also pointed out that only about 18 Florida counties use the Dominion system.