Exclusive — Swing States and Dead Cats: Elections in One of the Nation’s Biggest Battlegrounds

by | Jun 29, 2016

Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel frequently brags about his staff as “America’s Finest Elections Team,” but they’re facing a unique challenge with the unpredictable and increasingly contentious 2016 election. Fortunately for this close-knit team, they won’t have to pick a new captain: Ertel was automatically re-elected after the qualifying period ended without him attracting an opponent.

In this exclusive interview with The Capitolist, Ertel shares some of his thoughts about his job, this election, and the unique challenges of running elections in one of the most highly contested regions in the country.

You were re-elected without opposition. Is that because people love you or are scared to run against you?

Ertel refused to take the bait, again giving credit to his colleagues. “It’s really a testament to the entire team that we have [at the Seminole County Supervisor of Elections],” he explained. “Voters see that everything is running smoothly.”

Part of the challenge, he said, was living in Florida, where the 2000 election had made the state popular fodder for late-night comedians. Still, he continued, the comedians can tell their jokes, “but in Seminole County, everything is running well, there aren’t lines, and the poll workers seem to be happy.”

Ertel did note that what may have seemed like a cakewalk to re-election actually followed a lot of early work — eighteen months early, in fact. “Knowing that we were going to be running the biggest election [in a long time], I got my petitions done in July of last year,” he said, referring to the petitions that are one option for candidates to qualify for the ballot, “so I could focus on running the election, instead of running for election.”

“Voters understand that this isn’t an easy job,” he added, “but they respect someone who did his homework to run away ahead of time, and that our office generally doesn’t make mistakes.”

Why is this election year such a big year, compared to past years?

Ertel is a registered Republican and has always been elected to office as a Republican, but he repeatedly emphasizes the nonpartisan role he plays. He was especially critical of groups “who try to cause their voters to go to the polls by losing faith in the process.”

“Campaigns from all across the political spectrum try their best to scare voters about the process so they can get their core voters to go to the polls,” Ertel explained, and his office can “play a little defense” against such tactics that, if unanswered, can depress turnout.

I had previously interviewed Ertel back in January for a story at Independent Journal Review regarding controversial mailers that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign had sent to Iowa caucus goers. The mailers were labeled “VOTER VIOLATION” and appeared to assign failing grades to the voter to whom the mailer was addressed and their neighbors. Mentioning that Iowa story, Ertel said, “we do not score voters.”

Drawing even harsher condemnation from Ertel were groups like the ambiguously-named “Voter Participation Center,” a Washington, D.C.-based group that attracted Ertel’s attention when one of his constituents tweeted a photo of a mailer addressed to “Gracey Duncan,” encouraging her to register to vote. The problem? “Gracey” was an orange tabby cat, who had died in 2014.

Worse than the mix-up about Gracey’s nonhuman (and sadly, nonliving) status, in Ertel’s opinion, was the misleading nature of the mailer. In addition to the group’s vague and benign-sounding name, the mailer was labeled “GOVERNMENT DOCUMENT ENCLOSED. DO NOT DISCARD,” and other language and markings that made it resemble official government correspondence.

“People think this is official correspondence when it’s not and it undermines people’s faith in the elections system,” Ertel told Politico’s Marc Caputo. To counter future misleading mailers, his office launched a website, www.OfficialElectionMail.org, where they post copies of all mail they send voters, making it easy to tell what’s official and what’s not.

What are some of the concerns voters are expressing this year?

A quick perusal of the Voter Participation Center’s website and staff bios makes clear the liberal affiliations of the group, but they’re far from the only group accused of misleading voters and the problem isn’t limited to the left. Ertel described “many methods” used by “both sides” to spread discontent, such as complaining about not enough early voting, raising concerns about illegal immigrants voting, etc.

One of the biggest ways to counter this, Ertel emphasized, was just doing everything his office could to ensure that elections run as smoothly as possible. Voter fears about shenanigans at polling places or obstacles to voting access are alleviated when they arrive to vote and find cheerful staff and short lines.

“In an election year, especially a presidential election year, people are whipped up into partisan politics on both sides,” said Ertel, so “it’s nice to see that there is at least one branch of government that seems to be going well, especially when it’s a branch that in years past people have been wary of.”

Adding to the scrutiny is Seminole County’s vital place in determining the balance of Florida elections. With South Florida a Democrat stronghold, and North Florida Republican, the counties that comprise the “I-4 Corridor” (so named for the interstate highway that runs through them) in the heart of the state have increased influence.

“Because we are Florida, and the swing region in the swing state is the I-4 Corridor,” explained Ertel, “and Seminole County has the highest voter turnout [based on percentage of population]…we have to be more than perfect.”

There are constant misconceptions to address, as well, such as the frequent rumor — usually heard from relatives up north — that mail-in ballots are only counted if the election is close. “Not true,” stated Ertel. “They are the first that are counted and reported,” with every Seminole County election.

The job also requires a lot of advance communication and education, and Ertel’s office frequently employs social media. Using both Ertel’s account, @MikeErtel, and the official office account, @VoteSeminole, Ertel says their goal is “to let people know they have as many ways to cast a ballot as possible…in the most colorful yet Switzerland-esque way possible,” reaching out and instilling confidence in Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and third party supporters alike.

Ertel says he’s definitely gotten “more aggressive” on Twitter, employing more memes and directly commenting on news stories, even mocking the differences between Florida and other states regarding access to early and mail-in voting.

“People have this perception of Florida because Katherine Harris wore too much makeup,” Ertel quipped, referring to Florida’s Secretary of State during the contested 2000 election, who was a frequent fixture on the news for weeks as the courts attempted to sort out the butterfly ballots, hanging chads, and other uncertainties that delayed the results. “But by putting out funny tweets, it makes people take a second look.”

“There’s always improvements to be made,” said Ertel, but he won’t hesitate to speak up to defend his home state and his office “when people are making fun of a job and a profession that I love.”

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.


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