Earlier this week, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune editorial board recommended Kathy Dent in the supervisor of elections race. The board stressed Dent’s on-the-job experience as its deciding factor.
Dent has experience, yes. But it is an experience fraught with incidents of disingenuousness, lack of full disclosure and missteps that, viewed collectively, render that experience as less than impressive. A brief recap:
In August 2006, Election Systems & Software (ES&S), the company that supplied the new voting machines to be used in that fall’s elections, notified Dent’s office of some potential problems for users. ES&S instructed Dent to install new posters in voting halls to ensure members of the public were made aware of the proper protocol to follow to make sure their votes were recorded by the new machines. The posters — which Dent, over nearly three months leading up to the election, never did make public or install — would have advised voters to push “firmly” on the touch screen. The posters would have emphasized that voters must carefully “hold down” their selected candidate’s box “until it is highlighted” — a delayed process that might take several seconds, the posters warned.
Dent’s decision to not put up the new posters during the November elections, which included the contentious race between Christine Jennings and Vern Buchanan, was inexplicable. But what followed was even more confounding.
Despite the fallout of 18,000 votes unaccounted for, despite the loud outcry from the public and media searching for any information that might help make sense of what had happened to those missing votes, despite the national spotlight that once again cast a pall over Florida voting practices, Dent’s office was not forthcoming about the ES&S warning letter and the recommended posters. When the existence of both was brought to light some time later by other sources on the Internet, the silence from Dent’s office, in retrospect, seemed deafening
Various investigations were launched, and one January 2008 report published by Florida Fair Elections concluded that, “The failure to display the ES&S warning poster and the failure to warn voters about this problem after it became apparent were poor decisions that unquestionably contributed to the high undervote rate in Sarasota County.”
In 2008, Dent’s office oversaw another snafu when an entire state Senate race went missing from a small, but potentially deciding, number of absentee ballots. What is significant is that while Dent knew about the error and had taken action to rectify the situation, she once again did not make the situation known to the public — apparently not even informing the campaign offices of Nancy Detert and Morgan Bentley that their entire race had been left off nearly 70 absentee ballots, 40 of which had already been returned by the time the mistake was caught.
The ability to run an office, even one with all the complexities and challenges of the elections office, can be mastered by anyone with reasonable intelligence and capability. What cannot be mastered as easily are the standards of transparency and commitment to the democratic process that would have made putting up those 2006 posters an immediate priority.
Dent’s track record suggests that even when discussing something as routine as election office pay raises with county commissioners, when it comes to being forthright, her aim is rather low.
Now, perhaps more than ever, it is essential that our elected officials aim very high indeed. Not just in plain, honest, forthright speech, but in ethical practices and pursuit of excellence in carrying out the duties of their offices. As voters, we must aim even higher when deciding which way to cast our ballots.
Experience, without the guiding influence of wisdom, integrity and humility, is a useless quality for anyone, but particularly so for an elected official. As voters, we must demand something significantly more from our elected officials than mediocrity in performance and number of years clocked in on the job.
M.C. Coolidge is well-known to Sarasota readers for her astute observations in her award-winning “Reality Chick” column, which ran for a number of years in the former Pelican Press, and for her “Sense and the City” column, which ended recently in Ticket. Her blog site is www.mccoolidge.com.