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Friday, March 01, 2024

The room where it happens: Inside the Supervisor of Elections’ Office as ballots roll in

Observers practice civic duty, build electoral trust

<p>Campaign signs line the street outside of the Florida Museum of Natural History polling location Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022.</p>

Campaign signs line the street outside of the Florida Museum of Natural History polling location Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2022.

There’s no fancy catering or formalwear — but it’s still Alachua County’s ultimate watch party.

After 12 hours of open polls at 64 precincts, county ballots are delivered to a room clad in red, white and blue — and it’s completely open to the public. Supervisor of Elections Kim A. Barton sits, draped in an American flag overshirt, while 10 members of the public watch her work to certify the Nov. 8 midterms. 

Mark Alfieri, a 64-year-old Gainesville resident and retired law enforcement officer, was at the office until 10:45 p.m.

Alfieri could’ve been home spending time with his family, he said, but watching live election results helps him trust the electoral process in Alachua County. 

“I think a lot of people don’t know you can do this,” he said. “I think they should — I think it’s kind of a civic responsibility.”

Every election, the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections’ Office opens a canvassing board viewing area where residents can watch live poll updates and listen in as county officials confirm ballots. 

The canvassing board consists of the supervisor of elections, a county court judge and a designated county commissioner. Together, they certify the accuracy of voting equipment, verify signatures on mail-in ballots, review poorly marked ballots and release preliminary results on election night. Afterward, they complete a thorough audit to provide official results post-election.

The purpose of the board is to ensure no critical election decisions are made by a single person. 

In addition to Alfieri, observers Tuesday night included representatives from Alachua County’s Democratic and Republican parties and a devoted wife. All agreed party lines mean nothing while watching tallies arrive, sitting on the patriotic, plastic chairs

James Maggio, a 47-year-old UF adjunct professor and the chairman of the Alachua County Democratic Party, has attended canvassing board meetings on and off since 2012. He’s most amazed, he said, by the board’s dedication to restoring damaged ballots to honor the voter’s intent.

“They duplicate these ballots,” he said. “And then they come in the morning and now they’re checking the duplication again — that’s all to get somebody who couldn’t be bothered filling out circles correctly.”

Being present at the canvassing board looks a little different for Maggio than the rest of the public, because he’s there for voter protection, he said. 

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Some ballots are cast with crossed-out bubbles instead of shaded circles. When that happens, or when someone’s signature on a mail-in ballot’s envelope differs from the one stored in the voter registration system, Maggio and the Alachua County Republican Party representative are called upon to dispute the voter’s intent.

“You don't look for who they voted for — you're not trying to weigh your side,” he said. “The disagreements are rare, because people mostly show what they want.”

But some ballot debates and unexpected delays can push the canvassing board meeting late into the night and early morning.

In 2018, Maggio said, a recount between gubernatorial candidates Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum and agriculture commissioner candidates Nikki Fried and Matt Caldwell meant staying until 3 a.m. 

“To me, it’s just a testament to America’s commitment to a Republic,” he said. “It’s boring, but I enjoy that we have this process.”

Not everyone stays the entire time, though. Heath Silberfeld, a 72-year-old editor and writer, spent just a few moments in the office Tuesday — her first time at the canvassing board.

“They know what they’re looking at,” she said. “They’re making sure everybody’s in agreement so there’s no question.”

Prior to being in the office, she’d also attended the watch parties of Gainesville City Commission candidates Ed Book and Dejeon Cain and mayoral candidate Ed Bielarski.

Some people, like Cindy Dorfeld Bruckman, a 62-year-old librarian, were there on behalf of a loved one.

Still sporting her name badge from when she volunteered at the supervisor’s office, she snapped a photo of her husband Mike Bruckman for her mother-in-law. As the vote-by-mail coordinator’s wife, she’s spent six years of election nights watching him in action. 

She doesn’t stay past 11:30 p.m. most elections, she said, but watching the polls update online is nothing like being in the supervisor’s office.

“There’s a kind of electricity in the air that you don’t get at home,” she said.

Contact Averi at Follow her on Twitter @averijkremposky. Contact Lauren at Follow her on Twitter @LaurenBrensel.

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Averi Kremposky

Averi Kremposky is a senior journalism major at the University of Florida. When she’s not covering music, art and culture beats for The Avenue, you can find her going to a concert, finishing another book in one sitting or submitting to the latest Taylor Swift album theory.

Lauren Brensel

Lauren Brensel is a journalism sophomore and a metro reporter for The Alligator. In her free time, she's found going on mental health walks, being silly with friends, hiding from the public and reminding those around her that they did this song on Glee.

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