Rarely does the Supervisor of Election’s office draw much interest: most people don’t really know what it does. Rarer still is the political panel featuring candidates for the Supervisor of Elections office that draws a crowd. But Flagler’s has not been a conventional elections office: Like England after Cromwell, it’s still recovering from the often traumatic six-year reign of Kimberle Weeks, when the office was so often in the news that it rivaled the police beat.
That ended in January 2015 when Weeks resigned and the governor appointed Kaiti Lenhart, to fill out Weeks’s term. It’s been quiet since. But absent a Democrat yet to qualify, the August primary will decide who among three Republican contenders, Lenhart among them, will be the next permanent elections supervisor. So the race is drawing unusual interest, as was evident by the first forum featuring all three candidates Wednesday evening, hosted by Flagler County Republican Club and held at the Palm Coast Community Center. Close to 100 people turned up to see Lenhart, Kimble Medley and Abra Seay take on 10 questions in turn.
It was no slugfest. Aside from a single curt but passing exchange between Medley and Lenhart over the number of precincts before and after 2012 (Medley said the number went from 34 to 22, Lenhart said it went from 28 to 22, voting documents on the elections office’s website show they went from 35 to 23) the three candidates took no swipes at each other and not only kept their answers on the questions, but showed remarkable focus in their answers, displaying none of the political tendencies of candidates to stray onto their own talking points and evade questions: they came off over a 60-minute span more like brainiacs at a seminar rather than as politicians at a candidate forum.
The questions, prepared by the club’s Wes Priest, were light on generalities and heavy on the nuts and bolts of running the elections’ office—budgets, equipment modernization, voters’ proximity to precincts, hiring practices, policies, ballot integrity, and so on. The result was an unusually thoughtful forum that may have left listeners perplexed only to the extent that their decision would be made harder by the relatively even quality of the candidates: there are no duds. Lenhart herself summed it up accurately in her closing statement: “I think that everyone has answered these questions really well, and it might be a hard choice for many of you out there to decide who to vote for.”
Each spoke from her strengths: Lenhart as the incumbent has her record of “rebuilding” the office and restoring civility there, as she put it, after working there for five years previously. Medley has been studying the office, attending its canvassing board meetings and preparing for the job for just as long, displaying her knowledge literally down to the penny on a couple of occasions this evening, when citing budget figures. Seay clearly lacks experience and familiarity with the office compared to her two rivals: she alone spoke most often with notes before her. Yet she comes across as the most managerially savvy of the three, not least because of her recent years coordinating the school district’s Early Childhood Education Department. It’s a $1.2 million operation whose budget exceeds that of the elections office by $400,000, and whose number of employees, all under Seay’s supervision, is five times the size of the elections office’s.
People in attendance saw three distinct personalities: Seay and Lenhart seemed more at ease than Medley, who was the most polished of the three but also more wooden than she is in person, when her personality more closely resembles Seay’s affability. Lenhart spoke fast –her speech rhythms have a NASCAR quality to them–with an accumulation of details that were sometimes difficult to follow. But the three candidates left little doubt that they are quick, sharp learners with a healthy, nerdy interest in the supervisor’s office (Seay was convinced to run by Peggy Rae Border, whose nearly two-decade and flawless tenure as Flagler’s elections supervisor preceded the Weeks years. Border was at the forum. Weeks was not.)
And when it came to their answers, the differences were difficult to detect. Depending on the question some spoke in more detail than others, but they each showed their strengths. Lenhart was quick to show the contrast between her tenure and Weeks’s (without mentioning Weeks by name) when she spoke of returning a federal grant to the office for the first time in six years, a $147,000 grant that’ll help reduce the county’s spending on new voting equipment due by the 2018 election, and when she spoke of reviewing all policies and procedures when she took over and improving training procedures, with more focus on cross-training. Medley repeatedly sounded like the office’s finance chief, but she also spoke of wanting to improve the office’s perception: “The first change I’d like to see is attitude, that customer service, it’s our first job.” When asked after the forum about improvements since Weeks’s tenure ended, Medley said two current county commissioners had not positive experiences with their campaign finance issues there.
Seay, for her part, brightened a few faces in the audience when she spoke of wanting to train students ion the district to be poll workers and run school elections as if they were poll workers, as a way to prepare them for the next step—and to engage students, even in the lower grades, in the electoral process. She said younger students could vote for their favorite books.
The single-most contentious question of the evening—and contentious is likely too strong a word—was about the reduction of precincts in the county, and whether the candidates would increase them again, with an increasing population. The precincts were reduced from a combination of reasons earlier this decade: the Great Recession played a part, cutting local government budgets, so did the surge in early voting and voting by mail, which has reduced by a third the volume of voters on election day, so did Weeks’s abrasive relationship with a county commission that was mistrustful of the supervisor’s spending ways.
Seay, showing her distance from the office, was the most radical on that score: she said she’d immediately restore three of the most outlying precincts cut during the Weeks years, even though those were among the least-frequented precincts. She said she can convince the commission to put up the money. “When you have your facts and you present that to your governing board they see that you’ve done your homework,” Seay said.
Lenhart was more careful. “There’s so much involved with that,” she said of expanding precincts, citing equipment, money, poll workers and training as having to be in place before any such expansion is possible, while some poll workers may have to be convinced to travel those distances. But, she said, some new precincts will be inevitable as one or two current precincts are reaching their capacity, among them the VFW on Palm Coast’s north side, which numbers 8,000 voters.
Medley said growth must be anticipated, and with it equipment and budgetary needs, but—likely because of her familiarity with the office’s budget—she did not go so far as to suggest adding precincts. Rather, she spoke of “other options,” such as the push for voting by mail or voting early, and for traditionalists who still like to vote on election day, “can we look at transportation opportunities?”
The audience responded warmly to all three throughout: there was no distinctly higher decibel levels in the applause for one over the other, and all three candidates remained and engaged in individual discussions with club members long after the forum had disbanded.