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Osceola County violates state law by printing party affiliation on absentee ballot envelopes

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. — Osceola County voters are preparing to vote for a new representative for House District 35 after Fred Hawkins stepped down this summer.

Absentee ballots have already been mailed out ahead of the primary on Nov. 7.

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But now, the county is having to send out new envelopes after a mistake was printed on them.

More than 2,000 Osceola County voters received their absentee ballot by mail for the upcoming special election. To the eye, the envelopes look like they were supposed to. But if you look a little closer, you can see the voter’s party affiliation on the envelope.

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Stephen Michael said he realized the problem this weekend. On the envelope, you could see R for Republican, Stephen’s party affiliation.

“I’m very concerned simply from the fact that if somebody that was unscrupulous were to handle my ballot, either coming to me, or going back to the supervisors of election, if they had a cognitive bias towards or predisposition toward another candidate, and they knew how I voted, they might discard my ballot, and therefore my vote would not be able to be recorded,” Michael said.

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Though a voter’s party affiliation is public record, state law says having it on the envelope is a violation. “A mailing envelope may not bear any indication of the political affiliation of an absent elector,” according to Fla. Stat. § 101.64.

Osceola County Election Supervisor Mary Jane Arrington admits there was a mistake.

Osceola County staff worked Monday and Tuesday to send out new envelopes that don’t have the party affiliation information on them.

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She said her office uses a third-party vendor, Magnolia Press based out of Seminole County, to print and mail out absentee ballots—because the county doesn’t have the equipment to do it.

“Just like when you use any third party, you don’t have complete control. We send them the information in a data file. They use that information that we send them to then process the ballots. We do not see them before they hit the mailbox,” Arrington said.

Channel 9 confirmed this is not the first time the county has violated the law.

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It happened last year when thousands more were sent out. Arrington said that time too—it was the vendor’s fault. They claimed they didn’t know of the new state law.

“How does this happen? Not once, but twice?” asked Channel 9′s Ashlyn Webb.

“I do not know,” Arrington said, adding that the vendor is “seasoned” and Osceola County has used the vendor for several years.

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“They’re disappointed that they’ve made the mistake but still, you know, the buck stops here. It’s our office. We accept responsibility,” Arrington said.

Arrington said they’re considering finding a new vendor to handle printing and mailing absentee ballots for future elections. She said at the very least, they plan to have an election official look over the absentee ballots before they’re mailed out.

Channel 9 reached out to Magnolia Press for comment twice Tuesday before the story aired. The company did not respond. Wednesday, Magnolia Press owner and general manager Michael Hargon told Channel 9 the company declined to comment ahead of the story because he was advised by the Osceola County Election’s Supervisor Mary Jane Arrington not to speak to press.

Arrington told Channel 9 Tuesday that Osceola County staff did not see the incorrect envelopes before they were sent to voters. Hargon says the company provides a 5-step proofing process of absentee ballots and their envelopes before it is sent to voters. Hargon says Osceola County staff did see images of the ballots and envelopes before they were sent.

Arrington told Channel 9 Wednesday that she and her staff “never heard of” the proofing process Hargon referred to, adding that she has a “very reputable staff. “We did not sign of on it,” Arrington said.

New envelopes without party affiliation were sent to absentee voters this week.

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