Blue County Blunders Left GOP Voters in Central Florida County Without Ballots, Calling for Investigation
LAKELAND, Fla.—The Alachua County School Board in 2020-21 tangled with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis repeatedly during a bitter battle that pit local school board autonomy against the state’s preemptive authority in managing responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Along with the Broward County School Board, it was one of two Florida school boards where members’ salaries were docked by the state and their districts fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for imposing mask mandates in defiance of a DeSantis’ executive order and a state Department of Health rule banning such actions.
While the fines were rescinded in court rulings, the board’s actions induced controversy, which invited scrutiny. One of its five members was removed by DeSantis because she lived outside her district. His appointee, Mildred Russell, then cast the deciding vote when the board fired Alachua County School Superintendent Carlee Simon.
With four Alachua County School Board seats on the Aug. 23 ballot—two open seats and two incumbents, including the governor’s appointee—area Republicans seized on the parents’ rights movement, hoping to generate enthusiasm in support of three conservative candidates and Russell.
DeSantis was certainly doing so, riding parents’ anger over pandemic mask mandates and critical race theory. For the first time ever, a Florida governor was formally issuing endorsements in non-partisan local elections, backing 30 candidates in 19 school districts and campaigning on behalf of several before the Aug. 23 elections.
Among those 30: Russell, who was being challenged by none other than Diyonne McGraw, who she’d replaced on the board after McGraw’s home was found to be 328 feet outside the district she was elected to serve in 2020.
But enthusiasm among Republican voters can only be so efficacious in Alachua County, where the University of Florida dominates its largest city, Gainesville. It is one of just 15 of Florida’s 67 counties where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans—and in this case, significantly so.
According to the Florida Secretary of State’s office, as of Aug. 23, of Alachua County’s 179,389 registered voters, 85,920 are Democrats and 48,362 Republicans.
In the best of circumstances, it would take nearly all of Alachua’s 42,093 unaffiliated voters and the entire GOP registry to defeat Democratic candidates in the deep blue county, where only the most western of its 64 precincts have Republican majorities.
But what unfolded in Alachua County before the election, and on Aug. 23 itself, can hardly be described as the best of circumstances.
It can be—and is being—described, however, as voter suppression by some local Republicans with county GOP representatives calling on the state Republican Party Committee and DeSantis to probe Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Kim Barton’s actions, either for rank incompetence or conspiring to sabotage Republicans at the polls.
Voters in two west county precincts, both where GOP voters hold sway, were forced to wait more than a half-hour to vote on Election Night because their polling stations ran out of Republican ballots.
In fact, GOP voters in the Newberry and High Springs precinct polling sites had to wait for Alachua Superintendent of Elections (SOE) workers to twice supply depleted Republican ballots on election day, witnesses have widely reported.
With Republican ballots in at least two precincts hard to find, the SOE’s website, VoteAlachua.com, then crashed. As a result, several precincts had to transport ballots to the SOE’s office to be tabulated manually hours after the vast majority of Florida counties had filed official results.
When the results were posted, incumbent Tina Certain was reelected with progressives Sarah Rockwell and Kay Abbitt winning their races and McGraw reclaiming her seat by defeating Russell, one of only five of DeSantis’ 30 endorsements not to advance.
The five members of the new Alachua County School Board are, for the first time ever, all women with each regarded as progressive. Defeating three conservative male opponents and Russell on Aug. 23 has Democrats calling it a tide-turner in their party’s 2022 prospects in Florida.
It also has local Republicans furious, with state Sen. Keith Perry (R-Gainesville) saying intentional or not, by its incompetence, Barton’s office is guilty of “voter suppression.”
“Republican voters in both Newberry and High Springs have given up waiting and left without exercising their right to vote because Republican ballots were unavailable,” he said in an election night statement.
“It is unconscionable that elections officials have put the integrity of these races in jeopardy, forcing voters to make a choice between waiting to cast their ballots and getting home to their families. At stake are local races, including several competitive school board races.”
Perry said at that point, it was uncertain what options county Republican voters had in ensuring their votes were counted or in casting a ballot if the SOE’s mistakes made it impossible for them to vote.
“What we know for an absolute fact is Republican votes have been suppressed while all other voters have had the unimpeded opportunity to exercise their right to vote,” he said. “There’s somebody and some person that was the cause of this. That individual or group of individuals need to be held accountable.”
Barton, a two-term Democrat first elected Alachua County SOE in 2016, was already facing criticism after her office in July mailed nearly 1,000 ballots without any Gainesville City Commission races to voters in one precinct, and 900 ballots to voters in another with an incorrect Florida House district.
Barton’s SOE office was also investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) for allegedly recruiting at least 10 inmates at the county jail to register to vote following the adoption of 2019’s Amendment 4, which gave some Florida felons the right to vote. Four of the 10 have been convicted of illegally registering to vote because they lied on their statements. No one in the Alachua SOE was charged.
‘Off the Rails’
Alachua County Republican Party Committee Chair Ed Bratty told The Epoch Times on Aug. 30 that before the 2022 elections he had no complaints with Barton.
“Past elections were well-handled. Results came in in a timely fashion, no outstanding disputes,” he said. “Not exactly sure why it went off the rails this time around. There were problems, things going wrong, even before the elections.”
It is hard to convince local Republicans that something more sinister than mere incompetence wasn’t afoot in the string of mistakes and mishaps before and during the Aug. 23 election, Bratty said.
“The problem is the blunders all tend to skew in one direction. That is the kind of thing that raises alarm bells,” he said.
Barton told WCJB TV 20 on Aug. 24 that “we did have enough ballots to accommodate all voters, but what happened was this particular election brought out more Republican voters than usual.”
How a seasoned elections official would not have enough ballots for all registered voters on election day is curious, Bratty said, but somehow not having enough ballots only for GOP voters in an election cycle where conservatives are animated and showing up at polls across the country in big numbers strains credulity.
“There’s no excuse for anyone involved in elections to not know well-established patterns—Democrats vote early in the process and Republicans late in the process,” Bratty said.
“To have the precincts in which Republicans historically perform the very best short of ballots on the day of the vote, during the after-work drive time” is either incompetence or intentional interference.
There could be more issues with the Aug. 23 election results, he said, recalling when he went to Barton’s SOE office on election night, “47 percent of precincts had failed to transfer their data correctly” and were having difficulty getting it done right.
“That’s a lot. That adds up,” Bratty said, clarifying that he is not claiming outright that the results now posted by the county and state “are wrong,” but that the confusion fostered by the ballot shortage and website crash certainly make them suspect in many minds.
Blunting criticism is the fact that none of the four races were particularly close. In District 1, incumbent and board vice chair Certain accrued 60.58 percent of 50,633 votes to defeat Daniel Fisher by more than 10,000 votes; in District 2, McGraw garnered 57 percent of 50,504 ballots to oust Russell by more than 7,000 votes; in District 3, Rockwell got 58.5 percent of 49,935 tallied ballots to outpoll Ray Holt by nearly 8,500 votes; in District 5, Abbitt collected 54 percent of 49,486 votes to beat Prescott Cowles by nearly 4,000 ballots.
Fears of ‘Orchestrated Bumbling’
If some Republicans opted not to wait for ballots on election night and just went home, that number is not enough to affect results “when you just concentrate on the handful of precincts that did not have enough ballots,” Bratty said, but it remains uncertain—even a week later—if Republicans in other precincts encountered similar shortages.
“We’re trying to get our arms around how extensive the problem was,” he said. “We’re putting the information together to work with the Republican Party of Florida election integrity team” to investigate the Alachua SOE’s handling of the Aug. 23 primaries and local elections.
“First of all, we want an accounting of everything that went wrong,” Bratty said. “Second, my particular interest, is making sure nothing like this goes wrong in November’s election. We only have a short window” to address the issues that fostered the mistakes.
The third aim “is accountability. We want an accounting of what happened and some kind of path provided where those problems are fixed. It should make it very transparent so this doesn’t repeat itself,” he said.
Bratty is not calling for DeSantis to remove Barton. “That’s not really in my wheelhouse,” he said. “I’ll leave it to the (state GOP committee election integrity) team to get (a recommendation) to the governor’s desk on what should be done.”
But something needs to be done to reassure Alachua County voters—especially Republicans—that local elections officials are not suppressing their votes through orchestrated bumbling, he said.
“We did our job, we made sure we got as many Republicans out to the polls as possible to support our candidates in a very blue county,” Bratty said. “We just want to make sure their efforts aren’t derailed by administrative incompetence.”
Or, he added, something worse: “I certainly agree with those who look to the fact that these ‘mistakes,’ they tend to skew in one direction. That raises eyebrows.”