Duval County Canvassing Board controversy captures statewide attention

The board, which reviews questionable ballots, is still banning cameras during its meetings and limiting the number of spectators.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – All eyes are watching Florida this election but some are wondering why the Duval County Canvassing Board is trying to keep eyes away.

The board, which reviews questionable ballots, is still banning cameras during its meetings and limiting the number of spectators.

Court action is still possible even though the board made the decision to livestream parts of the meeting.

Chris Hand, an attorney for the local Democratic party, says it’s a start but there is a long way to go.

“The good news is there has been some movement on transparency now that the board is livestreaming its meetings but that’s just an incomplete solution,” Hand said.

News4Jax attorney Ed Birk says the WJXT is still trying to work out an agreement to allow the cameras. He hopes to avoid court action.

The Democratic party is also continuing to fight for access and to be able to object to questionable ballots, a process that was also limited by the new rules.

Not only are cameras banned, but now because of the pandemic, only a small number of people are allowed in the room during the canvassing process.

Observers, including several attorneys, said the new limitations might violate Sunshine Laws.

If a complaint is filed the entire matter could end up in court and if a judge agreed the current processing of ballots might have to be done all over again in the open.

Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan is confident that the new rules will be upheld if challenged but says he is prepared for the worst.

“The thing we know in this business is we are going to get it done no matter what it takes," Hogan said. “So if the challenge occurs and we lose then will be working here 24 hours, seven days a week until we get it done.”

The ordeal in Duval County is gaining attention throughout the state. In Tallahassee, lawyers and voter rights groups are also watching closely. Pamela Marsh of the First Amendment Foundation said cameras should be allowed as they are in other counties.

“The remedy really is transparency,” Marsh said. “If Duval County wants its canvassing board to have trust it needs transparency. The public should be allowed to participate.”

All sides are hoping this will get resolved soon and the matter would not end up in court.

In early October the board adopted a rule without public notice, restricting who could attend meetings and forbidding television cameras or cell phones from taking pictures at meetings.

Both are contrary to state law.

In the state capital and 65 other elections canvassing meetings, reporters are allowed in and so are their cameras.

The one exception is in Jacksonville.

The First Amendment Foundation says it’s wrong.

“A ballot is a public record,” said Pamela Marsh with the First Amendment Foundation. “We have a Sunshine Law problem where the meetings aren’t open to the public. The press isn’t allowed to be in there, and we have a public records problem.”

About the Authors:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.