After 30 years at the helm, Jackson County Supervisor of Elections Sylvia Stephens announced Monday that she will not seek re-election for another term in office.
Close friends, relatives and staff members gathered in the lobby of election headquarters to stand with her as she shared that news in a press conference.
Among them was her toddler-granddaughter Shiloh, a clearly adored member of the family she expects to have more opportunity to spoil once she has all that extra time on her hands.
She’ll handle one more big job, the 2020 election, before she walks away.
She said Monday that she knew nothing about what was ahead when she was first elected in 1988, describing herself as “a green gourd” when she started. It was a tremendous learning curve, she said, and, as elections technology advanced through the years, she would face many such challenges to keep herself and her office up to speed with the sometimes quickly changing process. She must have done all right – she was opposed only once in all those years of reelections that brought her three decades of service.
In a press release she’d prepared for the press conference, she talked about some of her career memories.
The elections office was in the Jackson County Courthouse for many years, in two connected rooms on the east side of the building. “The office equipment consisted of two electric typewriters, an adding machine and two rotary phones with only one telephone line for the office,” she recalled. “All voter applications were typed with a carbon placed between two applications. One application was placed alphabetically in the filing cabinet and one was placed in the large, black precinct book. The voter’s information was typed on a small voter information card and given to the voter. Any changes to a registered voter’s information was written on a legal pad…the new application and the legal pads containing changes were taken at least once a month to the teacher of the computer and data entry department at…Chipola Jr. College. When a list of registered voters was needed, a request would be made to the teacher. The information was printed on large green lined perforated paper and might be ready for pick-up in a week or more.”
Computers, of course, helped change all that.
And gone are the old voting machines that had long strips of cardstock paper in columns containing the names of the candidates, with voters pushing levers down beside the name of their chosen candidates in order to vote. Stephens said those old machines were so heavy they regularly damaged the floors as they were moved back and forth at precincts on Election Day.
The process for counting votes was a laborious by-hand task that took hours and there was always a big crowd on hand to watch the returns as the numbers came in. The crowd overflowed onto the lawn. “A large chalk board was erected outside on the courthouse lawn and someone would take the local candidates’ totals and write them down on a chalkboard so the people waiting outside could obtain the results,” she said. It could often be midnight before the results were known. Absentee vote totals wouldn’t be sometimes known for days.
Nowadays, the results are tabulated at the precincts just moments after the polls close at 7 p.m.
The voter registration process also changed over the years, most markedly in 1995 when the “Motor-Voter” bill was passed. It allowed voters to register at the driver’s license offices, libraries and some other government offices.
Another big change came in 2000, when all Florida elections offices were required to convert to a new state-certified voting system that included a precinct-based optical-scan tabulator that allowed voters to correct any over-voted or blank ballot errors at the time they were voting.
In 2002, the advent of early voting meant additional equipment and the need for more space. In 2003, the elections office was moved from the courthouse to its current location nearby.
Advances in voting equipment continued through the years, and along the way many Florida elections have seen challenged results at various counties in the state. Not so in Jackson County over these many years. Stephens credited her staff with helping the county achieve “honest, smooth, trouble-free elections….a record of which I am honored and proud to claim.”
Stephens said she’ll miss the public, her work, her team, and the candidates she’s known all these years in office. “It has truly been an honor to have been elected by and to serve the citizens of Jackson County…for over 30 years,” she wrote. “The support over the years fills me with appreciation, thankfulness and gratitude. I am so humbled by this absolutely wonderful experience that has been much of my life. It’s bittersweet but I do look forward to spending more time with my family, especially my grandchildren, and just relaxing at home.”