On Monday afternoon, County Judge Gordon Shuler, County Commissioner Bert Boldt and Supervisor of Elections Heather Riley, each wearing masks, met in the Apalachicola offices to certify the results of the August 18 primary.
Such a meeting of the canvassing board is usually a pretty routine affair, but this year it was held against a backdrop in which one candidate had raised questions about the conduct of the primary.
Pinki Jackel, who lost in her bid for county commissioner from District #1 by a mere dozen votes, was not present for the canvassing board’s certification, but she had raised issues in an Aug. 19 email to Riley.
Jackel had sought personnel records pertaining to Elizabeth Jones, the wife of Commissioner Ricky Jones, who had emerged victorious over Jackel in the open Republican primary.
“Please understand, we are not alleging any malfeasance as to the election,” Jackel wrote. “However, as you understand the supervisor of a public office we hold complete transparency as sacrosanct.”
Jackel, who ran the elections office from Aug. 2015 through Jan. 2017, sought the dates and times when Elizabeth Jones was present in the elections office as an employee.
“Please provide a job description of her duties and responsibilities, and Ms. Jones acknowledgement of such employment policy,” Jackel wrote.
“Further, there has been brought to your attention previously, Facebook postings by Ms. Jones that were slanderous to my candidacy that continued through the primary campaign,” she wrote. “We have a detailed record of such postings.
“As well, as an employee of your office actively campaigned outside your office, and may not have ceased when in your employment. Please provide all details of this problem being addressed with Ms. Jones.” Jackel wrote.
In her reply, issued the following day, Riley shared records that showed Jones was hired June 16 as a bilingual specialist, addressing translations of documents into Spanish and assisting voters whose native language is Spanish. The part-time job, of no more than 24 hours per week, was paid $12 per hour. The record showed Jones has worked under the maximum hours for all but the first two weeks of August, when she earned three hours overtime each week.
In an interview, Riley said the position was created, and advertised, because of ongoing litigation in other Florida counties that have generated pressure on supervisors of elections to ensure they are meeting the needs of Spanish-speaking voters, pressure hastened by an infusion into Florida of Puerto Rican residents displaced by hurricanes.
Riley’s point was underscored by the fact that among the steps the canvassing board had to take Monday to ensure the machine tabulations were all synchronized properly, and that any and all technical problems had been addressed, the three members had to sign off that they had met the requirements for serving Spanish-speaking voters.
In her email reply, Riley addressed Jackel’s concern over Elizabeth Jones’ alleged partisan postings on Facebook during her employment. Jackel had indicated she had discussed the matter with Kristy Banks Branch, in her capacity as chair of the county’s Republican Executive Committee.
“I received a phone call from (Banks) within the last two weeks (not sure of date and time as I did not log that information) informing me of a complaint against Mrs. Elizabeth Jones for posting on Facebook or making comments something to that effect,” Riley wrote in her Thursday afternoon reply to Jackel.
“I immediately went to the Facebook page of Mrs. Jones and scrolled through several pages and did not see any posting relating to any type of campaigning,” she wrote. “Kristy agreed with me that she also had looked and did not see any such postings.
“The next day that Mrs. Jones came into work, I informed her of the allegations and asked her to please refrain from any such postings or comments as they reflected poorly on this office,” Riley wrote. “Upon the receipt of your email I had a meeting with my entire staff and discussed our social media policy in regards to campaigns or political agenda.”
Jackel also had sought a detailed description of who had access to absentee ballots and the official policy, “beginning the moment a cast ballot arrives to such time as it is opened by the canvassing board.”
She also asked to know how many signatures on returned vote by mail ballots were “signature reviewed” by office staff.
Riley said she, Chief Deputy Jennifer Hicks and Deputy RyAnna Lockley all have received training pertaining to comparing the signatures on envelopes with those on file with the office. In addition, like the ballots inside, the envelopes have been retained by the elections office.
Jackel’s email also had questions about the reporting of returned votes by mail on the elections office’s votefranklin.com website, pertaining to “voter turnout documentation and envelopes opened during canvassing.
“We are additionally requesting all ballot counting machine tapes that balance in accordance with website turnout and ballot envelopes canvassed,” for District #1, Jackel wrote.
Riley wrote to Jackel that the day before election day, the canvassing board, together with elections office staffer Jody Wilson, met to open ballots, with Riley, Hicks and Lockley feeding them into the scanner. Jackel and her sister Pam were both present, Riley said.
On election day, to address ballots that came in on the final day, the canvassing board, along with Lisa Murray, opened the remaining ballots, with Riley and Lockley feeding them into the scanner. No members of the public were present.
Riley went on to outline her office’s policy regarding vote by mail ballots, noting that “we follow the exact same procedures you had in place when you were supervisor of elections.
“When a ballot is returned either by mail or hand delivered, we follow the procedures outlined in Voter Focus for the return of a vote by mail ballot,” she wrote, noting that only she, Hicks and Lockley handle these ballots. She attached a file outlining the procedures for handling this responsibility.
“Once a return ballot has been received it is signature verified and added to a batch. That batch is placed inside a locked fireproof cabinet inside of a locked room. At the time of canvassing ballots are taken directly from the locked cabinet into the canvassing board room for processing,” Riley wrote, noting that every returned ballot is signature reviewed for verification.
Jackel also sought clarification as to why vote totals that appeared on the votefranklin.com website seemed to have confusing information.
She wrote that Jones’ precinct results for St. George Island had only a single total,, with the four sub-categories of Election Day, Vote By Mail, Early Votes, and Provisional voting each listed only as a dash within parentheses which, according to her citation of Florida Statute 98.0981(2)(a), “represents detailed groups (with between 1 and 29 votes.”
By Florida law, Jackel wrote “that dash represents 29 votes or less down to 1 vote, which means the total Mr. Jones could have received on St. George Island, per your reporting is 87 votes, not 199 votes.
“We are formally requesting information and documentation that codify the tabulation process that led your office to calculate that Mr. Jones received 199 votes when Florida statute demands that a dash (-) represents 29 votes or less,” she wrote. “If your reporting is correct, Mr. Jones lost by 100 votes.”
To address Jackel’s question, Riley provided an explanation from Jim Hilburn, a product manager with VR Systems Inc., which handles the elections office’s software, regarding how data appeared on the votefranklin.com website.
“Election results are downloaded straight from the tabulation equipment and uploaded in the election results widget on our website. The reporting of the dashes is the way VR has programmed the widget to read those results,” wrote Riley.
Hilburn wrote that the company used dashes, rather than actual numbers for the three categories of votes, on the St. George island precinct totals in accordance with a Florida statute that does not require inclusion of these subtotals when “fewer than 30 voters voted a ballot type.” In the case of early voting on the island, Jones received just 16 votes.
”When dashes appear in the results, this means one of the votes types have received between one and 29 votes,” he wrote. “To follow F.S. 98.0981 (2)(a) when that happens we blank each type for that candidate in that race or precinct.”
Jackel also sought “a detailed record of all new voter registrations and transfers from other districts executed by your office” between June 1 and July 20, for and into District #1.
She also wrote that she was “formally informing” the elections office that she was seeking a recount of all votes cast in the District #1 commission race. Riley has said that an automatic machine recount is only called for when the margin is no more than one-half of 1 percent, which in this case would be six votes.
“If a recount is denied we will have no recourse but to petition the State of Florida – through the courts, if necessary – to mandate and supervise said recount,” Jackel wrote.
“Sadly, there are too many unanswered questions and the numbers simply do not add up when all things are considered,” she wrote. “In the interest of full procedural transparency – and in the service of the people of Franklin County, specifically District One, it is best that these questions be answered as efficiently as possible.”
Riley provided in her email a list of voter registration records and address changes in District 1 dating back to June 1, as well as the printouts of voting machine totals for the election.
She reiterated her earlier position that the vote totals did not call for a machine recount.
“I have spoken with Maria Matthews, the division director, and upon reviewing the election results, even though the margin is slim it is her opinion that your race does not fall in the statutory guidelines of F.S 102.141(7) to constitute a machine recount,” Riley wrote.
COVID-19 hits elections office
The supervisor of elections office was forced to close to the public on Monday, after part-time worker Elizabeth Jones received test results Sunday that she had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Supervisor of Elections Heather Riley said she, Deputy Chief Jennifer Hicks and Deputy RyAnna Lockley all got tests Monday morning.
“Due to one of our part-time employees testing positive for COVID-19, it is with an abundance of caution that our front office is closed to the public until all employees have been tested and receive a negative result,” she wrote.
In her posts on Facebook, Elizabeth Jones described the fever and symptoms she had experienced, including a loss of taste and smell. She confirmed that one of her two sons had tested positive for COVID-19, and that her husband, Commissioner Ricky Jones, and their daughter were awaiting their results.
“Thank you again for all your responses and for praying for my family. We appreciate them more than you ever know,” she wrote. “Also, please pray for my aunt Mari. She is in the hospital in Orlando, she also has COVID and she is in need of a touch for God and a miracle.”
This article originally appeared on The Apalachicola Times: After Jackel raises questions, primary ballots certified