Still counting: Sheriff’s race remains in limbo

428 absentee ballots weren’t uploaded to state election server; DeLoach leads

Before the automated recount for the Putnam County sheriff’s office race could begin Thursday, County Court Judge Elizabeth Morris, chairwoman for the canvassing board, released bombshell news to a small gathering of people, including Republican candidate Jon Kinney, at the Putnam County Supervisor of Elections Office.

On Election Day, 428 absentee ballots counted were not uploaded to state elections office server, Morris told the crowd, and therefore were not part of the results shown Tuesday evening.

In addition to Morris, Supervisor of Elections Charles Overturf III and County Commissioner Nancy Harris serve on the canvassing board.

Kinney, who on election night held an 18-vote lead over Democratic candidate Gator DeLoach, now trails by nine votes.

According to a new election summary report of unofficial results presented by Overturf, DeLoach received 15,846 votes and Kinney received 15,837 votes.

DeLoach was not present at the Putnam County elections office during the canvassing board meeting.

“I am frustrated,” Kinney said shortly after the announcement. “I am not angry. I am just frustrated.”

Staff working Wednesday night in preparation for the recount, Morris said, discovered the mistake.

Morris said she processed the absentee ballots on Election Day.

In October, Overturf said, the elections office purchased a high-speed scanner for absentee ballots to reduce processing time. 

Voting machines used at precincts use a modem to transmit results, Overturf said. 

The new scanning system for absentee ballots isn’t connected to a modem and resides in the same room as the server.

“Someone on staff uses a jump drive to download the results and then takes it to the server to upload,” Overturf said.

On Tuesday, the absentee ballots were not uploaded to the server, Overturf said.

Staff discovered the mistake, Overturf said, Wednesday night during an audit of the election results.

“The audit uses a completely different system from a totally different company,” Overturf said. “The numbers from the audit didn’t match the result totals.”

Overturf said Thursday morning, a check of the audit showed the numbers were skewed in the absentee category.

From there, Overturf said, staff discovered the Election Day absentee votes were the ones not uploaded to the server.

“All the other numbers in the other categories such as Election Day or early voter matched,” Overtuf said.

Poll workers spent the rest of Thursday running ballots through voting machines until 4:30 p.m. when the canvassing board met again to discuss 74 provisional ballots.

At that time, Kinney’s attorney, Zachery Lucas Keller, presented a letter requesting the 427 absentee ballots be excluded from the totals for the sheriff’s race.

In the letter Keller argues, “In that the total number of ballots has changed by the addition of 427 ballots not reported by 2 a.m. the day after election, those ballots ought to be excluded. Furthermore, in that the canvassing board was not convened when the 427 ballots were ‘discovered’ the chain of custody for those ballots is suspect.”

Morris quickly dismissed the letter.

In an email, Keller further explained, ”Based on (state) statutes the total number of ballots cast was to be verified by the Supervisor of Elections. If there had been any discrepancies at that time, Florida Statutes requires the discrepancy be reported in writing to the canvassing board along with the reasons therefore if known. The Putnam County Supervisor of Elections did not report any discrepancies until today. We have been told that the ballot machine in question was located at the Supervisor of Elections office during the open polling. The chain of custody for those ballots and the memory card contained in the ballot machine, from the close of polling at 7 p.m. on November 8 until this morning, is unclear.”

 “We were just asking to remove the absentee ballots from the count based on state statutes,” Kinney said.

The canvassing board validated only 23 provisional ballots. The ballots are sealed and not open until validated.

Eight additional ballots, which did not scan during the election, would also be counted. 

At 7:30 p.m., the canvassing board decided to halt the recount until 9 a.m. today.

“We are about 60 percent through with the recount,” Morris said.

Overturf said the ballots would be locked back into the vault overnight.

With the percentage difference between candidates at less than a quarter of one percent, Overturf said a manual recount of under votes would also occur after the automated recount is complete.

There were no over votes found by elections staff, Overturf told the canvassing board. An over vote is when a vote is cast for at least two candidates in the same race. 

Overturf said there were more than 700 under votes in which the voting machines did not record a vote for any candidate in the sheriff’s race. The canvassing board will determine if there was intent to vote for a candidate.

“It is what it is,” Kinney said Thursday evening. “The support has been phenomenal and is greatly appreciated.”

DeLoach said he was surprised at the additional number of votes and appreciative the elections office and canvassing board chose to move quickly on a recount to provide closure for the community and employees at the sheriff’s office.

“I have full confidence in the supervisor of elections and canvassing board that they will be thorough and methodical,” DeLoach said. “We will wait patiently for the result.”

Overturf said his goal is to ensure his staff is accurate in tabulating the recount votes.

“Somehow we made a mistake,” Overturf said. “We’re going to make sure (the recount) is right.”