Funding for sample ballots remains after Brevard County budget passed in 5-0 vote

With some consternation, the Brevard Board of County Commissioners passed the county’s $2.04 billion annual budget Tuesday night, but not without bipartisan pushback on the county’s earlier decision to discontinue paying for sample ballots and postage for mail-in ballots ahead of elections.

In a reversal Tuesday, Commissioner Jason Steele changed his vote on the relatively small but controversial budget item: sample ballots issued by the Supervisor of Elections Office. In a show of solidarity, all five commissioners passed the budget unanimously, despite stated opposition from Commissioner John Tobia and Commission Chair Rita Pritchett, after Steele went back on his earlier decision.

Sample ballots had looked like a thing of the past heading into Tuesday’s final budget hearing. Steele, however, said he had experienced a change of heart after hearing the concerns of voters.

A sign in the audience in favor of sample ballots. The September 19 final budget meeting of the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners, in Viera.
A sign in the audience in favor of sample ballots. The September 19 final budget meeting of the Brevard County Board of County Commissioners, in Viera.

Tobia, at the first budget meeting on Sept. 5 had proposed axing $318,223—or 0.02% of the total budget--from the Supervisor of Elections Office for sample ballots and paid postage for mail-in ballots. The money was instead shifted into Brevard County Fire Rescue, with the money targeted to help pay for constructing and renovating firehouses.After those sample ballots — which are mailed out to every voter ahead of elections as a way to prepare —were not funded in the initial budget meeting, the County Commission received backlash from both Republicans and Democrats, many of whom said the policy was not in the spirit of transparency and democracy.

Tobia, who cannot run for re-election because of term limits, is running for for Supervisor of Elections, which is on the ballot next year. He will face the incumbent, Tim Bobanic, in the Republican primary. Bobanic was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to fill out the term of his predecessor, Lori Scott, who resigned last year.

Tobia and Bobanic engaged in a dialogue Tuesday over possible compromise solutions. Tobia suggested only halting sample ballots mailed to those who request mail-in ballots as well as publishing sample ballots in the newspaper.Voters who request mail-in ballots often choose ultimately to vote in person, Bobanic said. Those voters are not allowed by law to bring live ballots, such as mail-in ballots, into the polling place with them, per state statute. Sample ballots, however, are allowed and many voters pre-fill them out as a guide to save time on election day.

The issue with publishing sample ballots in the newspaper, Bobanic said, is the samples have to be generic to all voters and include every race and referendum, even those that do not apply to constituents in different localities across a geographically large county. Newspaper circulation also has less reach than the elections office’s ability to mail location-specific ballots to every registered voter in the county.

“We would in essence be saving only about $12,000” by publishing sample ballots in the newspaper, Bobanic said. “While I certainly value every penny of taxpayer dollars… we would only be reaching about 12,000 people or reaching 150,000 voters. To me, it’s a penny wise and a pound foolish.”

Dozens showed up Tuesday night to support Bobanic’s proposed budget and voice their disapproval of the Board’s earlier decision. Sample ballots were cited by many as a crucial way voters prepare for elections. Paid postage for mail-in ballots are seen as important for elderly and disabled voters who have issues getting to the polls on election day.

More: Supervisor of elections budget at forefront in Brevard County Commission budget debate

Diana Schommer, a member of the Brevard Republican Executive Committee, was one of many Republicans and Democrats who spoke up on the issue Tuesday. "This is all very simple," she said. "I just want my sample ballot."

Voters are able to study and prepare using the sample ballots before entering the voting booth on election day. "I use it. I do research with it. I put a lot of time into the amendments and I want to be prepared..." she said. “This is .016% of the budget but it will negatively impact every voter in the county,” she added. “It really is an issue of importance for all of us voters.”

Tatiana Rosado spoke on behalf of the League of Women Voters, saying she and her group were against “defunding” sample ballots, a useful resource to busy voters who rely on them as helpful guides.“Not giving Brevard County the opportunity to review their ballots, research their choices leaves them susceptible to being told how to vote by partisan organizations who set up tents outside of polling places,” Rosado said.“And for voters who cannot make it to polls due to illness, disability or travel should not have to pay to vote,” she added.

The county's overall budget of about $2.04 billion for the 2023-24 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 is a 2.64% increase over the current 2022-23 budget of about $1.99 billion.

The 2023-24 general fund tax rate of 3.0486 per $1,000 of taxable value is a 6.54% decrease from the 2022-23 tax rate of 3.2619 per $1,000 of taxable value. The new rate would amount to $609.72 for a single-family home with a taxable value of $200,000. This is the 10th consecutive year that the proposed general countywide property tax rate has been reduced from the prior year.

Homeowners pay the general fund tax and any other applicable taxes for things such as library or special road districts.

The budget ― as proposed in July by Brevard County Manager Frank Abbate ― includes money for 5% pay raises for county staff, upgrades to the Brevard County's jail complex, seven new or renovated fire stations, more road repairs, improvements at 20 parks facilities and expanded lifeguard coverage along Brevard's beaches.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Funding for sample ballots remains after Brevard County budget passed