By Cindy Jackson
January 18, 2021
Editor’s Note: This interview took place prior to former Supervisor of Elections Vicki Cannon’s retirement. Cindy Jackson provided questions and Vicki responded in writing. The following is a summary of Vicki’s responses.
As America is about to inaugurate its 46th president and as countless county and state officials across the nation are preparing to take their own oaths of office and to begin their terms as elected representatives, The Fernandina Observer looks back on the career of one of Nassau County’s most successful and revered elected officials – Vicki Cannon, who after twenty years of service recently retired.
According to an official definition “Public service is a public trust, requiring you to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws, and ethical principles above private gain. You shall not hold financial interests that conflict with the conscientious performance of duty.”
That being said, not many public servants have a resolution executed in their honor – and to have it done unanimously. This public servant has one.
Not many public servants, upon retirement, receive kudos from individuals and politicians from both sides of the aisle. This public servant does.
Not many public servants are recognized not only as a leader in their elected county but across the state. This public servant has been a leader among Florida’s other 66 counties throughout her entire career.
Not many public servants are appointed by the Governor to be a part of a statewide working group. This public servant has. And, perhaps no one public servant has done it better than Vicki Cannon, the recently retired Supervisor of Elections for Nassau County. Here’s what we have learned from an intimate conversation with her.
WHAT HAS BEING A PUBLIC SERVANT MEANT TO YOU? WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO GO THIS ROUTE?
From a young age, my parents instilled in my two sisters and me the importance of our civic duty, to be informed and to vote. One month after turning 18, I registered to vote.
Soon after, I moved to Tallahassee to attend college. While attending college, I worked in the office of the Florida Secretary of State. Back then, the Secretary of State was itself an elected position but since 2002, it is now by filled by appointed by the governor.[to help put it all in perspective, According to the state website, “Today, the Secretary of State is Florida’s Chief of Elections, Chief Cultural Officer, the State Protocol Officer and the head of the Department of State.”]
I earned my Associate’s degree and shortly thereafter returned to Nassau County with the intention of completing my college education.
FIRST JOB IN NASSAU COUNTY
At the age of 24, I applied and was offered the position of City Clerk of the City of Fernandina Beach. Initially, the position was temporary to fill-in for a Mary Julia Little who was on maternity leave. When she decided not to return, I was appointed to the permanent position.
During my tenure of almost 18 years as City Clerk, I was responsible for over 22 city elections working with the Supervisor of Elections Shirley King and her staff. When she announced she would be retiring, I decided to run for Supervisor of Elections.
That was also the year of the Bush/Gore lawsuits.
“I have known her and worked with her for many, many years. I represented her in her official capacity and provided legal service to the Canvassing Board. She served the citizens in an exemplary manner and set the standard for Supervisor’s statewide. She cared about deeply about our system and her integrity was unequaled. She strongly advocated for ways to enhance the voting system and excelled in making sure the law was followed and there were no “grey areas”. She has a great sense of humor and a warm personality that wins you over in a second. Every elected official can use her as the model.”
County Attorney Michael Mullin
ONCE ELECTED, WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST MOVES AS THE NEW SUPERVISOR OF ELECTIONS?
Immediately after taking office in January 2001, my two colleagues and I had several challenges. in addition to the normal transition and administrative duties, our goals were to:
• Separate from the County Clerk’s network and implement a network and website for our own agency. At the time, there was only one computer set up to receive emails for our agency and our website was hosted by the Division of Elections (FDE) which was common at the time.
• Respond to a consortium of news agencies requesting to view the punch card ballots for the 2000 Presidential race. (Election workers were hired to hold up each ballot for the consortium’s representatives as elections workers were not allowed by law to touch the ballots).
CHANGES IN VOTING WAYS
As history shows, the Florida Legislature immediately decertified the punch card voting equipment. Consequently, for the April 2001 City election, we contracted with a vendor to use their certified optical scan voting equipment, prepared new election worker manuals and implemented new procedures.
We provided election worker training while educating voters on the new system at the same time.
Later that year, the optical scan voting equipment was deemed to be not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
KUDOS TO NASSAU COUNTY
Nassau County then became the first Florida county to conduct an election using the ADA-compliant touchscreen voting equipment. It was first used for an election in the town of Callahan in September 2001. Again, the challenge was to prepare new manuals and procedures, train election workers and provide voter education.
CHANGES IN THE ELECTORAL SYSTEM
After the first year and almost every year thereafter, there have been continuous challenges and changes in laws, rules, procedures, technologies, etc.
Although the last 20 years have been challenging to say the least, it has always been necessary to provide for uniformity, transparency, integrity, and accuracy in conducting elections in the State of Florida.
- Two technologies that have significantly improved the integrity of Nassau County elections are:
The Electronic Voter Identification Devices (EViDs), is the system that is used when voters check in during early voting and on Election Day at the polling place.
Prior to this technology, it wasn’t possible to record who had voted until after the election. With EVIDs, our voter registration records are updated within seconds of a voter checking in. This prevents voters from being able to vote more than once in an election. And that began in 2006. Nassau County and Manatee County were the first Florida counties to use the EVIDs for early voting and on Election Day. And this took place in 2006.
- The Independent Audit System (IAS) is used to scan and tabulate every early voting, Election Day and Vote-By-Mail ballot.
- Two technologies that have significantly improved the integrity of Nassau County elections are:
The ballots are scanned into the system, it tabulates the votes cast on each ballot, and then the ballots are placed back in the boxes received from the polling places by tabulator/serial number noted on the seal and vote by mail ballots which have been tabulated by batch numbers, allowing for every ballot to be accounted for and the voting equipment results to be compared to the IAS. An image of each ballot is saved electronically and, if there is a question about a ballot, the ballot can be easily retrieved for inspection by the Canvassing Board as the IAS identifies the exact position the ballot is located in the box.
In 2016, Nassau County was one of the seven Florida counties that implemented this technology. During recounts, the ballots have to again be processed through the tabulators, ballots with overvotes and undervotes must be out stacked, which separates them from their original boxes. Representative Cord Byrd sponsored legislation in 2020 that will now provide for the IAS to be used in recounts beginning in 2021. Now, the ballots will remain in their original boxes maintaining the pristine inventory of voted ballots in the event the election is challenged in court after a recount. Images of the ballot are available for the public, if requested, providing for even more transparency.
“I have run in one [an election] but this year with the first to be a part of the canvassing board. It was like watching a well-oiled machine. So smooth, so calm. You [Vicki Cannon] have done wonders.”
Commissioner Aaron Bell
“When I first met Supervisor Cannon, she was Clerk Cannon, in her role as City Clerk for Fernandina Beach. As a new City Commissioner in 1996, Vicki was instrumental in keeping me and the commission on track and prepared. We worked together at first to make our city better, then throughout our years in public office, we worked to make our county better, and most recently she used her knowledge of efficiency in the Supervisor of Elections office to advocate and advise me on how to make our state better. She has been one of the best Supervisors in the state. I wish her the best in her next chapter.”
-FL State Senator Aaron Bean
CARE TO TALK ABOUT THE STRESS OF ELECTIONS?
Under normal circumstances, all elections are stressful. However, I believe the 2020 Election Cycle was the most stressful election in my 20 years of being Supervisor of Elections due to the many challenges and short timeframe to implement them. Those conditions included the implementation of COVID-19 guidelines which mandated:
• adequate signage
• plastic shields
• cotton-tipped disposal sticks for voters to sign-in
• waste containers (which were provided free of charge by WestRock)
• face masks
• sanitizing wipes and solutions
And, all needed to be secured and provided in fairly short order (and at a cost).
• we lost 5 of our 14 polling places which displaced over 24,000 voters
• we needed to purchase and implement the introduction of “vote by mail” ballot which required drop boxes to be equipped with additional security, and;
• we now have bilingual ballots
CARE TO COMMENT MORE ON 2020 ELECTION?
During the 2020 election, lawsuits and public records requests were greater than we have ever experienced and were filed extremely close to the elections. The misinformation and disinformation campaigns were expected. We had been as we advised of this by the US intelligence agencies.
And, social media posts with inaccurate information and groups sending voter mailings using flawed data sources were very confusing to our voters.
HOW DID YOU FEEL WHEN IT SEEMED EVERYONE WAS SUSPICIOUS OF THE HARD-WORKING SUPERVISOR(S) OF ELECTIONS (ACROSS THE STATE/THE COUNTY), THEIR STAFF AND COUNTLESS VOLUNTEERS HAVE BEEN UNDER ATTACK WITH CLAIMS OF VOTER FRAUD?
While Mary Julia Little, City Clerk, was training me for her position, she said you will hear and read about the meetings you attend and wonder if you attended the same meeting to which they are referring. Her experience became my experience and for all of my career I witnessed the wrongful accusations against those I worked with/for, candidates, elected officials, and myself. I know that the truth will always be revealed according to God’s word and, therefore, I ignored them, whether they were malicious or as a result of simply not knowing or understanding the processes.
I have consistently recommended that citizens contact a source who has the facts before believing the news media, social media and groups that do not present factual information.
It was my privilege to take calls from citizens who wanted to know if what they were reading or hearing was factual and to get information on our processes. As I have cited several times over the years, one of my favorite quotes from one of our founding fathers, John Adams, is: Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
WHY DID YOU DECIDE IT WAS TIME TO RETIRE?
I was leaning toward retiring in 2016, but I had goals that I wanted to accomplish during one more four-year term. A few of these goals were as follows:
• Florida law requires that our voter registration street index contain only valid residential street addresses. For over ten years, we have been working on this project by changing our voter registration database from street ranges to a database with specific valid residential addresses only. We have worked closely with county agencies and municipal clerks/zoning departments to certify their boundaries and valid residential addresses within the same. This is important to ensure that people do not register to vote at non-residential addresses. This greatly enhances the integrity of the election process.
• Almost every permanent record and records that must be retained for longer periods of time have been scanned as an electronic record which protects them from ever being destroyed by fire, water, or natural disaster. We [now] have redundant backups to ensure they will be available for the public in perpetuity. We have scanned 99% of the registration records and election certification records dating back from the 1800s to present. Soon, older records that were in binders and stored in a temperature-controlled facility for preservation purposes will be available via the Nassau County Library system and genealogy associations for research.
• Implement a new electronic filing system to organize all procedures, documents, agreements/contracts, financial records and personnel records as used by the agency in order to provide easy access and to eliminate errors whereby creating an almost paperless environment. (This project is nearing completion and will eliminate the need for most paper records — excluding historical records which will be stored in their original formats).
• Provide video training for election workers, staff and voters using the Election Learning Management System (ELM), a service provided by our voter registration database vendor, VR Systems. And while we were able to provide some video training materials, time did just not allow for the creation of specific video training programs before my retirement.
“Thank you from the bottom of our heart for your service to our County and the State.”
Commissioner Klynt Farmer
WHAT DO YOU PLAN TO DO AFTER JANUARY 21, 2021?
First and foremost, it has been my honor and privilege to serve the citizens of Nassau County! Now, after a 44-year career, I am looking forward to spending time with family and friends. My husband and I are looking forward to traveling, enjoying the great outdoors, going to festivals and events, volunteering, bicycling, walking, reading and all things that are not work-related. In our county, we have such beautiful beaches, bike trails, nature trails, rivers, golf, wildlife, parks, etc.to be enjoyed.
As articulated in the resolution adopted on December 16, 2020, Vicki P. Cannon has truly been the model for outstanding service to the citizens of Nassau County and is unequaled in her integrity. Words to live by.