If redistricting lawsuit succeeds, Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office prepared to revert to previous County Commission lines this year

Ron Turner talks of changes in voting over the years and discusses legal issues affecting 2020 races

Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner addresses SKA members on Feb. 6. Rachel Hackney photo

Regardless of the ruling in a federal lawsuit over new Sarasota County Commission district lines approved last year, the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office has plans in place to enable it to proceed with the 2020 election, Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner told about 40 people at the Feb. 6 Siesta Key Association (SKA) meeting.

“We have worked with our vendors for that,” Turner explained.

The federal judge hearing the case has said he would expedite his ruling, given the fact that three County Commission seats will be up for election this year, Turner pointed out.

A hearing in the lawsuit filed in December 2019 has been scheduled for late April, with candidate qualifying set for early June.

“We will do our best,” Turner added at the SKA meeting, to proceed according to the ruling. He also noted that, “as much as possible,” he and his staff try to prepare multiple contingency plans during election years.

Nonetheless, he indicated that if the federal judge rules that the new districts violate the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Voting Rights Act, going back to the previous districts “is not something that we can turn around on a dime.”

After the County Commission’s 3-2 vote on Nov. 19, 2019 to approve the new districts, Turner explained, the revised map was sent to him. “My job, under law, is to implement the map …”

He and his staff overlaid the new lines on the previous district lines, he continued, and then over a map showing all the precincts. They have been working to assign each voter to the appropriate district, Turner said. Given the fact that the county has about 322,000 voters, he added, “It takes a little bit of time. … We’ve about finished that process.”

Further, Turner continued, “We are not mailing new voter information cards … as a result of the redistricting.”

After all voters have been assigned to the new districts, he said, he and his staff will work with the news media and use the Supervisor of Elections Office website to get out the correct precinct information to voters.

Moreover, Turner explained, every voter who does not request a vote-by-mail ballot for the Aug. 18 Primary Election or the November General Election will receive a sample ballot. Each sample ballot — just like each vote-by-mail ballot — will show the precinct to which the voter has been assigned, he added. His staff will add a line to indicate the County Commission district in which the voter resides, as well, he noted.

Those ballots will be mailed out approximately 10 days before each election, Turner said.

In fact, such ballots are mailed out prior to every election, he noted.

For the March 17 Presidential Preference Primary, Turner told the audience, the ballots will be mailed on Feb. 26, which just happens to be his birthday. He gets to pick the date, he added with a laugh, so he picked his birthday.

Refraining from sending out new voter information cards this year “will save us about a quarter of a million dollars.”

(During Turner’s presentation of his proposed 2020 fiscal year budget to the County Commission in June 2019, Turner pointed out that his expenditures always go up significantly in election years.)

Siesta Key split by new districts

This close-up of Map 4.1 , which was adopted by the County Commission on Nov. 19, 2019, shows the split of Siesta Key between Districts 2 and 4. Image courtesy Sarasota County

In conjunction with his discussion of the new district lines, Turner told the SKA audience that he had taken a screen shot of them so he could provide accurate information about what to expect. Siesta Key, he continued, has been divided between Districts 2 and 4. The Siesta precincts, he noted, are 401, 403, 411 and 421.

“Stickney Point Road basically is the dividing line,” Turner added. Those citizens assigned to Precincts 401, 403 and 411 are in District 2, he said.

Neither the District 2 seat nor the District 4 seat will be on the 2020 ballot, Turner added. “We always had a staggered way of voting for County Commission districts,” he continued, with Districts 1, 3 and 5 on one cycle.

Because a Sarasota County Charter amendment — Single-Member Districts — won voter approval during the November 2018 election, Turner explained, only voters who live in the same district as candidates for that district may vote for one of those candidates.

Thus, he said, Districts 2 and 4 will be on the 2022 ballot.

However, Turner pointed out, the Aug. 18 primary will include nonpartisan races — for the Sarasota County School Board and for judges — in which all voters can participate.

And, of course, every voter will be able to cast ballots during the November General Election, he added.

Voting information and trends

This is part of the homepage of the Supervisor of Elections Office website on the morning of Feb. 11. Image courtesy Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections

Feb. 18 is the deadline to register to vote in the March 17 Presidential Preference Primary, Turner emphasized. However, only those who are registered as Republicans or Democrats will be able to cast ballots that day, he continued, because “Florida has closed primaries. … I don’t make the rules. I just carry them out.”

“More than 80,000 voters in Sarasota County do not have a political party affiliation or are affiliated with a minor political party,” such as the Green Party or the Libertarian Party, Turner continued. “It’s a significant number,” he emphasized, given the fact that the county has about 322,000 registered voters. (As of midday on Feb. 10, the total had climbed to 323,112. Those who are not registered as Democrats or Republicans numbered 85,957, the Supervisor of Elections Office website said.)

“We’re seeing a lot of party changes right now through our office,” Turner added, as well as “a lot of registrations.”

He also explained that 16 Democrats will be on the March 17 Primary ballot, while four Republican candidates will be listed.

“Some of those candidates may have announced that their campaigns are suspended,” he continued. However, he added, “The ballot was set in Florida on Dec. 9, 2019.”

Moreover, Turner said, “No one has withdrawn from [a presidential] race in the state of Florida.” State law allows candidates to keep their campaign accounts active to some degree, even if they have suspended efforts nationally to win over voters. “And those votes will still count for all of those candidates that are [on the ballots].”

Turner also talked of changes in voting trends. “I predict that we’ll have about 100,000 vote-by-mail ballots [cast in the November election].”

The deadline to request such a ballot is 5 p.m. 10 days prior to an election, Turner said. A person may call his office or go online to take such action, he noted.

The Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota County Library is located on Newtown Boulevard. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Additionally, a citizen may take advantage of early voting. Five sites will handle that over eight days, he said — from Saturday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. — before March 17. Each of his offices — including the one in North Port — will be open for early voting, Turner added, along with the Betty J. Johnson North Sarasota Library in Newtown and a voting center at the Westfield Sarasota Square Mall located at 8201 S. Tamiami Trail.

“We’re trying to bring voting to the people.”

“Fewer and fewer people — by the thousands— are voting on Election Day in Sarasota County,” he said, “even though our voter rolls are growing tremendously.”

In 2012, Turner noted, 3,000 fewer people went to the polls on Election Day that November. By November 2018, he said, the figure was 6,000 fewer. “Voters are choosing convenience …”

Election security

During a question-and-answer period after his remarks, one audience member pointed out that Sarasota County voters use paper ballots. “Why are we concerned about Russians and Ukrainians?” the person asked.

The paper ballot system his office uses operates on a closed network, Turner replied. “It isn’t on the public-facing internet.”

Most of the worries about hacking among Florida supervisors of election, Turner indicated, are focused on the potential defacing of websites, “to create fear,” or efforts to change the voter rolls, which are maintained by the Office of the Florida Secretary of State. The issue is ensuring that voter data is secure, Turner added.

The Terrace Building is in downtown Sarasota is home to the main office of the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections. File photo

In response to another question, Turner explained that after a Sarasota County poll closes, and all the individual machine tabulations have been gathered, the data from those machines is transferred to his main office in downtown Sarasota via microburst. “It’s not on the open internet.”

Further, the office collects all the actual physical ballots, and it uses the tape from each machine to compare to the results staff received via that microburst.

One fact Turner stressed about vote-by-mail ballots is that they must be signed. His staff compares each signature to the one on record for that voter.

If a signature does not appear to match, he continued, “We contact that voter to give them a chance to ‘cure’ that signature.’” His staff uses four methods of contact, he added, if necessary: It sends a formal letter to the person, calls the person, sends an email and sends a text message.

“We had more than 80,000 vote-by-mail ballots returned [during the 2018 mid-term election],” Turner pointed out, and only 125 were rejected because of signature problems.

The county Canvassing Board, he added, makes the final attempt to determine whether a signature is valid. That board comprises a local judge, a representative of the County Commission and he himself, he added.

Amendment 4 issues remain unsettled

In response to another question, Turner reminded the audience members that, in November 2018, Florida voters approved Amendment 4 to the state Constitution, which allowed convicted felons — other than those in murder or sex offense cases — who had satisfied the terms of their sentences to have their voting rights restored.

However, Turner noted, the Legislature “acted to further clarify Amendment 4,” which resulted in a bill saying that the person would have to have paid all the fines and fees, including restitution, in his or her case. That action has been challenged in federal court, he noted.

The Florida Supreme Court provided an opinion — at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request — saying that it would be necessary for the felon to have made all payments required as part of the sentence before having the right to vote restored, Turner continued. The federal court has had the opposite view, he said.

“We have notremoved anyone from the voter rolls,” he stressed, for failure to make all payments. “To my knowledge,” he added, no one who registered to vote in Florida after passage of Amendment 4 has been removed from the rolls.

Turner pointed out that no uniformity exists from county to county — and no single state database ever has been established — to make it possible for a person to determine whether he or she has made all the applicable payments.

If his staff receives a voter registration application from a convicted felon who attests on that application that his or her voting rights have been restored, then his staff will check with state employees to verify that the person has served his or her sentence. If the state gives his staff “a green light, then [the person will be] added to the voter rolls. … Nothing has really changed on that front yet.”

“It’s going to be high drama to the end here,” he said, in terms of the lawsuits that could have an impact on the elections this year. “We do what we have to do under the law …”