Ron Turner talks about vote-by-mail expenses and COVID challenges
Ten years ago, in preparing for the decennial redistricting efforts mandated by the Florida Constitution in conjunction with the release of new U.S. Census data, then-Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Kathy Dent requested a 19% budget increase, her successor, Supervisor of Elections Ron Turner told the County Commission this week.
As it turns out, his budget request for the 2022 fiscal year — which will begin on Oct. 1 — is up 19.2%, compared to the figure for the current fiscal year.
And much of that hike is related to the 2022 election cycle, Turner noted.
“A 19% increase is an aberration for you and totally understandable,” Commissioner Nancy Detert told Turner during his June 22 presentation, which was part of the board’s budget workshop that day.
Having served on the county’s Canvassing Board when she was chair of the commission, Detert talked of witnessing Turner and his staff in action. “People can rest assured,” she said, “that voting is safe in Sarasota.”
“I appreciate that, Commissioner Detert,” Turner responded.
Altogether, the proposed budget for the Supervisor of Elections Office for the 2022 fiscal year is $7,670,754, according to a slide that Turner showed the commissioners.
Work related to redistricting, at the various government levels, and the August 2022 Primary Election, plus activities in preparation for the 2022 General Election, represent “probably about three-quarters of the budget increase,” Turner explained.
The redistricting issue could affect the County Commission, as well, Turner indicated.
The board members approved new districts in November 2019 — in response to the November 2018 passage of the Single-Member Districts Sarasota County Charter amendment. They will not necessarily have to redistrict again after they get the latest Census data, their Tallahassee-based redistricting consultant told them in 2019.
Referencing the initiative that began in the summer of 2019, Detert recently asserted that she believes she and her colleagues will be able to forgo redistricting in response to the Census figures. She based her belief, she added, on the efforts the consultant and a subcontractor undertook to balance district population in 2019.
Nonetheless, the Census data — which is expected to be released to the states on Aug. 16 — could necessitate the revision of the commission district lines.
“We do not draw the maps for the governmental bodies or entities,” Supervisor of Elections Turner said on June 22. However, if redistricting takes place, he noted, his mapping staff will have to determine updates to the county’s precincts. Moreover, Turner emphasized, new voter information cards will have to be sent to citizens. Approximately 350,000 voters are registered the county, he added. Therefore, “That’s not a small or inexpensive mailing to do.”
Turning to the 2022 elections, Turner reminded the board members that vote-by-mail ballots will have to be put in the mail to overseas military personnel 45 days before the general election in November of that year; the domestic vote-by-mail ballots will have to go out 40 days ahead of time.
In 2020, he continued, “We had a historic, a record, vote-by-mail turnout … in Sarasota County. We had about 150,000 vote-by-mail requests.”
Approximately 120,000 requests for vote-by-mail ballots remain in his office’s system for the 2022 elections, Turner said. New requests will be added to those, he noted.
Some people think that that voting by mail is cheaper than voting in person, Turner continued. However, he said, that has not been the experience in Sarasota County.
“It is a service that we do provide to the voters of Sarasota County,” Turner pointed out. Along with voting by mail, individuals can choose to vote early or vote on Election Day, he said.
Among other factors related to his FY 2022 budget, Turner noted the increase in the minimum wage in the state. (On Sept. 30, it is set to rise from $8.65 to $10 per hour.)
“We have a large cadre of poll workers,” Turner told the commissioners. “We also have hundreds of temporary workers,” who help answer the phone, undertake data entry and handle other responsibilities during election years. “We probably hired about 350 people last year to do those things in our office.”
In wrapping up his comments, Turner noted, “This is a changing industry,” adding that it is “a whole different industry” than it was when he began working with elections in the mid-1990s.
Then he mentioned the state supervisor of elections conference conducted in Tampa last week. “That certainly was an interesting meeting.”
(The Tampa Bay Times reported that supervisors of elections had numerous questions about how to respond to new elections measures approved by the Legislature this year and signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis.)
His office will have to comply with those changes, Turner told the commissioners “and still provide citizens the excellent service that they’ve come to expect from us in Sarasota County.”
After Turner concluded his remarks, Commissioner Christian Ziegler, vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, advised Turner that he had a couple of questions.
First, Ziegler asked whether Sarasota County has any Dominion voting machines. (Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and attorney Sidney Powell, both allies of former President Donald Trump, have alleged that Dominion Voting Systems “was somehow involved in a rigged  election,” The New York Times reported. In response to those claims, Dominion filed a $1.3-billion defamation lawsuit against Giuliani and Powell.)
During the exchange between Ziegler and Turner, Turner explained, “Florida does its own voting system certification,” which does not incorporate federal standards.
Two voting systems are approved for use in Florida, Turner added: Dominion and Election Systems & Software (ES&S).
In 2015, Turner said, the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections Office switched to ES&S. Turner further explained that the County Commission purchases and owns the system, while the Supervisor of Elections Office is the custodian of the equipment and maintains it.
Ziegler then asked whether Turner had accepted any private grants to assist with conducting elections.
Turner replied that he never had accepted such funding, even before it was outlawed. “I’m careful about that,” Turner added.
The only grant money he used came from the federal government to the state and then to his office, he said.
(The Hill reported in April that Republican state legislators have been promoting state regulations across the country “that would ban local government officials from accepting money from private sector groups that would aid in election administration. … Republican legislators who promoted the bans on local offices accepting help said they were concerned with the appearance of impropriety and with the idea that an outside entity should fund such a bedrock mission of government,” The Hill added.)
(On May 6, Gov. DeSantis signed Senate Bill 90, which encompasses the state’s new election integrity measures. Among those is a prohibition on supervisors of elections accepting private money for “any aspect of election administration or operations,” the Office of the Governor noted.)
“I think it’s just important to reassure voters,” Ziegler said on June 22, adding that he believes Turner does “a good job.”
Earlier during the workshop, as the board members discussed specific changes from their 2021 budget to the 2022 model, Ziegler said, “I think Ron Turner runs a great shop. We’re very fortunate.”
Finally, before Turner left the county’s third-floor Think Tank in the downtown Sarasota County Administration Center, he told the board members, “I have to thank the staff at the Elections Office …”
In 2020, he explained, “We had an election within two weeks of the start of [the COVID-19 pandemic] …”
Some poll workers did not feel comfortable handling their normal responsibilities because of concerns about the transmission of the virus, Turner continued. However, “The permanent staff in the Elections Office never questioned showing up to work,” even though they had no face masks or shields to protect them.
Those men and women are “owed some gratitude,” Turner said. “They were pretty brave at the time.”
Without their service, he stressed, the elections could not have taken place in 2020. “They’re my heroes in this.”