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Former mayor remains ready to go to trial for election recount

February 7, 2014
Pine Island Eagle

After examining the absentee and early ballots, as well as the results of 11 of the 30 precincts, former Cape Coral mayor John Sullivan seems more ready than ever to go to trial over the results of the mayoral election that he narrowly lost, alleging there may be something more amiss than just the numbers.

Sullivan announced Friday that he still intends to take request for a formal recount to court on account of numerous issues, including how the canvassing board was constructed, what he says is the lack of an audit trail to help catch possible ballot problems, and how he lost so one-sidedly in early voting.

Sullivan lost the Nov. 5 election to challenger Marni Sawicki by 121 votes, or by about .75 percent. He took the greatest number of votes on Election Day vote and in absentee ballots. However, among early voters, Sawicki captured 56.5 percent of the ballots.

In the 11 precincts Sullivan's team examined, the numbers were even more dramatic, with Sawicki taking 61.7 percent of early voters, with a two-to-one margin in some cases.

"We're trying to figure out why that anomaly took place," Sullivan said. "Nobody is able to explain it."

Janis Keim, Sawicki's campaign manager, doesn't have an answer but she did offer a possible explanation - a lot of early voters she talked to voted for Sawicki because of the campaign's visibility.

"The fire and police departments were all there with our volunteers supporting Marni like you're allowed to do. You didn't see anyone from his camp out by the voting place," Keim said. "It's just amazing to me that this won't go away."

Keim said she was a novice when she became Sawicki's campaign manager, and that she would have no idea how to massage an election.

"How can you 'fix' early voting? Give people money if you vote for us? The election people are right there making sure you're doing what you're supposed to outside," Keim said. "Nobody was breaking any rules. We wouldn't know what to do if we wanted to break the rules. That's how farfetched this is. Get over it."

Supervisor of Elections Sharon Harington said since early voting came into vogue in 2002, campaigns have become savvy in regards to targeting those who tend to vote early in order to get the best bang for your buck.

"When early voting began, there wasn't much of a trend. Now, more people are voting early because it fits their schedule," Harrington said. "Now, we're starting to build up 'super voters,' those who vote in every election or go to the polls and break that down for the candidates. They targeted those who had a history of early voting."

As far as the canvassing board goes, Florida statute 102.141 says "the county canvassing board shall be composed of the supervisor of elections; a county court judge, who shall act as chair; and the chair of the board of county commissioners," assuming one of the members is not up for election.

"There was never a county judge as far as we know, none of that was done, so I don't think the statute was adhered to," Sullivan said. "The city charter doesn't say enough as far as how the city elections are run. It dumps it in the lap of the county."

The state statute is specifically for county elections, not city ones. According to Harrington, most cities put that in their city charter or in the resolution that calls for the election.

Cape Coral's city charter is not clear on that, Sullivan said. The Sept. 29, 2013 resolution mentions that "appropriate election officials shall canvass the ballots," but not how that board would be constituted.

Harrington said the recommendation for a city canvassing board consists of the mayor, the city clerk and the supervisor of elections. But with the mayor up for election, that seat went to a member of the city council.

It's just a recommendation because the Lee County Elections Office is not responsible for city elections, rather a vendor to which the city which pays a fee to have it run the election. Harrington said that's the way it's been done since she arrived in 2004.

The Cape Coral canvassing board consisted of Sharon Harrington, city clerk Rebecca Van Duetekom and city councilmember Rana Erbrick.

The main point of contention is that Van Duetekom is not a resident of the city. Harrington said four of the five city clerks in Lee County also live outside the city the work for.

Harrington also said they since it wasn't a county election, the county canvassing board does not apply.

"What I find funny is that (in 2011) he served on a canvassing board, and he had no questions or comments about it at that time," Harrington said.

Sullivan also maintains there needs to be an "audit trail" to track a ballot that's been counted.

"You shouldn't have to track it back to the voter, but at least back to the ballot. I think a ballot should have a unique number on it," Sullivan said. "You don't have a way to track a ballot and that shouldn't be."

Harrington said there is a precinct and ballot style number on the ballot, as well as an individual number on the ballot stub, that once its detached, there's no way to know what ballot it belongs to so that secrecy of the ballot is ensured.

Also, each precinct gets a number of ballots and has to reconcile how many went through and how many ballots are left. They also hand count certain races in certain precincts.

"It's just to give us another pat on the back to make sure everything is right," Harrington said.

Harrington admitted there was an issue with some ballots that had stamped "duplicate" on it, but that was because many ballots that are mailed back are wrinkled or wet.

"If a ballot is not going to be able to be read by a machine, we could decide not to run it, but we don't do that," Harrington said. "We get members from each party to mark the ballot so we can go back if there's a question," Harrington said.



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