Coronavirus puts brakes on local election campaigns

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook staff writer

Forget the handshaking, fish fries and baby-hugging that would be taking place at this stage of the political season.

Local candidates in municipal and constitutional races have all but shelved their campaigns as the COVID-19 pandemic has reached the campaign trail. Candidates have seemingly turned their attention to finding ways to help the community make it through the uncertainty caused by spread of the virus.

At the same time Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Early has joined other supervisors in the state who have appealed to Gov. Ron DeSantis for help. They’ve asked the governor to take emergency action to help them with anticipated shortfall of poll workers and other election-related issues.

According to the News Service of Florida, the supervisors are asking DeSantis to issue an order that would allow them to add additional or alternative early voting sites. They also would like to have the option of adding an extra week for the early voting period and allow voters to cast ballots at early voting sites until Election Day.

The uncertainty makes it difficult to plan for certain phases of the election, Early said.

“This is a new wrinkle; to say the least for an election,” he said. “We have faced hurricanes and all kinds of emergencies but this COVID-19 pandemic is such a long lasting thing that it’s hard to plan for it.”

Leon County Supervisor of Elections Mark Early has joined supervisors statewide to ask Gov. Ron DeSantis to assist in extending some deadlines.

Candidates are facing a similar challenge. City commissioners Curtis Richardson and Elaine Bryant brought their campaigns to a halt almost a month ago as a statewide shutdown of schools, restaurants and other business are beginning to affect the economy.

All of this comes just four months before an Aug. 18 primary for many local races. Making the rounds for community meetings with their constituents and ad buys are all on hold.

“As city commissioner, I really have to focus in on what we are trying to do for people who live here,”  said Bryant. “The bottom line is my focus as a city commissioner is foremost in my line of things to do rather than campaigning.”

City Commissioner Curtis Richardson has suspended his campaign due to coronavirus.

Bryant is running for Seat 1, which she inherited in December 2018 following the suspension of Scott Maddox. He was indicted on federal corruption charges and was removed from office by DeSantis.

Richardson, the dean of the city commission, also said his focus is on helping the community cope. He added that his wife Nina Ashenafi Richardson, who is running for reelection for Leon County Judge Seat 5, has also suspended her campaign.

“This is a challenge like no one has ever experienced before,” he said. “I’ve been in elected office for almost 20 years now and had never been confronted by anything like this.”

City Commissioner Elaine Bryant has suspended her campaign due to coronavirus.

COVID-19 has impacted his fund-raising, although he had a campaign committee in place, said Richardson, adding that he wouldn’t be comfortable doing fund-raising at this point. 

“What’s important is that we help our neighbors and support our local small businesses,” said Richardson, who has been volunteering with farm share food distributions. “That’s what my emphasis has been and my wife as well.”

First-time Leon County candidate attorney Carolyn Cumming, who is running for the at-large seat, said she’s in the midst of getting petitions signed to meet a May 11 deadline. However, she also has been refraining from seeking campaign funds because of the impact of the coronavirus.

“We’re just trying to take it one day of a time, but it’s taking a toll,” Cummings said. “But of course human life is priority and public safety of everybody is priority as well.”

Attorney Carolyn Cummings is making her first bid the at-large Leon County Commission seat.
Photos by St. Clair Murraine

For Cumming and other candidates who are counting on petitions to get on the ballot, Early said his office is accepting petitions that were filled out electronically.

Early, who also is running for reelection to a second four-year term, encouraged voters to use his office’s website to retrieve ballots to complete early voting and voting by mail.

“The main message to try to get across to voters is they should try and vote by mail,” Early said, citing uncertainty about how long effects of the pandemic could be felt. 

He and his counterparts statewide are advocating for early voting because social distancing could reduce the number of poll workers in the fall. 

“That (using the website) would certainly improve our ability to plan for the election,” he said, “improve our ability to get these ballots out in the mail and it would relieve a lot of the burden that we would have to plan for in-person voting.”