Get ready for two-and-one-half weeks of the fiercest political battle Apalachicola has seen in a runoff election in many a year.
For the second time in less than a week, the Apalachicola city commission Tuesday night unanimously approved an emergency ordinance that will move the upcoming runoff to Tuesday, Oct. 1, thereby allowing for both early voting and vote by mail.
The commissioners approved the ordinance on first reading at a special meeting Thursday, after City Attorney Pat Floyd presented a summary of the proposed changes.
The push to move the runoff two weeks beyond the original Sept. 17 date had come from supporters of mayoral hopeful Kevin Begos, who met with Supervisor of Elections Heather Riley to see if the revised date would enable early voting and absentee balloting.
Both these options would not have been possible under the original schedule, as set in the city charter, to hold the runoff two weeks after the initial balloting Sept. 3. Riley had told commissioners well in advance of the September balloting that the two-week time frame would not afford her sufficient time to conduct early voting or voting by mail.
In addition, a decade-old letter from former Supervisor of Elections Doris Gibbs surfaced that pointed to previous attempts by her office to work with city officials to change the runoff date. City leaders didn’t take her up on her offer, and with runoffs infrequent in city elections, no effort was made to make the change.
If Begos’ opponent Valentina Webb, or either of the Seat #1 commission candidates Despina George and Barry Hand, had any concerns about the change in dates, they had dissipated by last Thursday.
Mayor Van Johnson offered a full-throated endorsement of the change, citing the work his mother had done on behalf of voting rights, and mentioning forebears of Webb and Hand, who had taken an active role in expanding the vote during the civil rights era.
“It would disenfranchise a lot of folks. Our forefathers fought for that right,” said Johnson. “I think people should have a right to vote.”
In his report, Floyd noted that while there would be a clear benefit of enabling active duty military personnel, as well as the homebound elderly and disabled, an opportunity to vote they otherwise would not have, changing the date ran the risk of having the outcome challenged in court by one of the four remaining candidates.
“There is the uncertainty created by it in respect for those candidates who have focused on a certain time frame,” he said. “It may subject the city to some liability for that. It could mean balancing the risk of causing a problem that may be another liability the city has to take on.”
Because all four candidates who made the runoff were in the audience, Floyd suggested “we have them tell us right now whether they’re going to object.”
All four said they supported the move. “In the best interest of the military, the elderly, some of the less fortunate, and because my grandfather fought for this, I do not object and I will not sue my city,” said Webb.
“I’m in favor of it,” said Hand, thanking the mayor “for that nice history lesson.”
The ordinance adopted Tuesday also leaves open the possibility that future runoffs in the odd-year elections could also be changed, when they do not allow sufficient time for absentee or early voting in the runoff.
Riley said Tuesday her office began the required ballot testing that afternoon, and will be mailing out a total of 14 military and overseas civilian ballots Wednesday morning. She said that for the Sept. 3 election, her office sent out six absentee ballots to military people stationed in this country, one to a military person stationed overseas, and six to civilians overseas. Four of these 13 ballots were returned.
She said her office plans to send out at least 348 absentee, more properly known as “vote by mail” ballots, as they are on a regular list for city elections. Voters registered in the city can continue to ask to be sent out vote by mail ballots up until Saturday, Sept 21.
In addition, voters can walk in to the office during regular hours and vote by mail there up until Election Day. The ballots would have to be returned to the city election office by 7 p.m. on Oct. 1.
Early voting will run daily from Saturday, Sept. 21 through Saturday, Sept. 28, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. with that voting taking place at the county elections office, 47 Avenue F. On Election Day, balloting will again be held from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Fort Coombs Armory.
In the Sept. 3 election, which saw an impressive 60.2 percent turnout, about two out of three voters who cast ballots did so before Election Day, so the change in the runoff date could have a considerable effect on the final outcome of these two races.
Of the 1,075 registered voters within the city limits who cast ballots, out of 1,786 registered voters, 410 did so during the week-long early voting, or about 37 percent of the total turnout. Another 298, or about 28 percent, made their preferences known by voting by mail.
In the mayor’s race, Begos, 61, secured more early votes, 180 to 160, than did Webb. But Webb, 55, was the winner among absentee voters, as she received 147 votes to Begos’ 102. And on Election Day she drew 173 votes to Begos’ 145, for a final total of 480 votes, or 44.8 percent, to 427 votes, or 39.9 percent, for Begos,
Amy Hersey, 38, who collected a total of 164 votes, or 15.3 percent of the votes cast for mayor, has announced her endorsement of Begos. She did not voice an endorsement in the city commission race.
In the commission race, George, 62, was the clear winner in early voting, collecting 211 ballots to Hand’s 77. In absentee balloting it was closer, with George receiving 117 votes to Hand’s 101.
On Election Day. Hand, 51, took more votes, 150, than did George, who collected 138. She finished as top votegetter, with 467 votes, or 43.9 percent, to 328 votes, or 30.9 percent, for Hand.
Commission candidate Luis Ramon Valenzuela-Lopez, who collected 62 votes, or 5.8 percent, has announced his endorsement of Hand for the commission seat, and Webb for mayor.