Thaxton, Dent trade barbs at first supervisor of elections debate

Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent

Republican supervisor of elections candidates Jon Thaxton and Kathy Dent (the incumbent) took to the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club stage today to debate who’s better equipped to oversee Sarasota County’s voting process.

“We need to end the litigation and conflicts and mishaps that seem to be plaguing this office,” Thaxton said during his concluding remarks. His campaign pledge is simple: a commitment to greater transparency and competency that will keep the supervisor’s office out of the headlines.

Dent, on the other hand, is leaning on her 12 years of experience. “I am an elections professional,” she said toward the end of the debate, rattling off a number of certifications and continuing education classes.

The two debated many of the high-profile elections controversies that have hit Sarasota since Dent was elected in 2000: in particular the massive 2006 undervote in the first Vern Buchanan/Christine Jennings congressional race. Thaxton accused Dent of ignoring memos from the company that manufactured the voting machines that the screens might not be up to par. Thaxton noted that the company suggested putting a notice about the screens inside voting booths; instead, Thaxton said, Dent’s staff put up flyers saying “Touchscreen voting: As easy as one, two, three.”

“Not true,” Dent said, interrupting Thaxton.

“Everything’s not true,” Thaxton shot back, adding that Dent should have notified the county commission (on which Thaxton sat) that the screens needed to be replaced. “Transparency’s a big problem right now and I think that’s a big reason why confidence is so low,” he said.

Dent accused Thaxton of peddling “misinformation” when he brought up the case of Kathy Bolam, the 2010 charter review board candidate who sued Dent, accusing her of trying to convince Bolam to surrender her chance to ask for a recount. Thaxton said Dent’s actions amounted to “influencing the results of the election,” and criticized her for participating in a review of her own actions as a member of the canvassing board.

“She was literally judging her own vote,” Thaxton said.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” Dent replied, calling Thaxton’s words “hearsay.”

“It wasn’t hearsay,” Thaxton said. “It was firsthand.”

Near the end of the debate, one Tiger Bay member asked Thaxton a simple question: There haven’t been any major crises in recent elections, so why change supervisors now?

“I don’t think that it’s any secret that Sarasota County has had problems with its elections,” Thaxton answered, emphasizing that he doesn’t blame staffers or voters. He said there is a “repetitive theme of a lack of transparency and constantly blaming others for things that go wrong.”

“I’m frankly ready to return to a time when it’s the candidates and issues in the headlines,” he said.

Thaxton and Dent will square off four more times in the coming weeks. I highly recommend you catch them live.