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Happytown: Ugly campaigning and early voting 

Plakon campaign takes flak for Sandusky mailer; despite attempts to thwart early voting, people showed up in droves to cast their ballots

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While we were busy going to press on Tuesday evening, we elected a president! But since our deadline was hours before the polls even closed, we have no idea as we write this who won, how close the contest was, or whether we are spending Wednesday morning celebrating, sulking or demanding a recount. As you read this, there's a good chance your Happytown staff is hung over – both figuratively and literally, since we hosted a party at Bullitt Bar downtown to watch the election returns.(Were you there? You really should have been, we're sure it was a lot of fun.) Given the weeks we had leading up to Tuesday, we needed that drink. Bad.

First, there was the ugliness of last-minute campaigning that led into Election Day. That's nothing new, but even we were a little stunned to see the mailer sent out last week by the Committee to Protect Florida, featuring an image of convicted Penn State child molester Jerry Sandusky. The mailer was sent in support of Republican State Rep. Scott Plakon, who's defending his seat from a challenge by Democrat Karen Castor Dentel, a schoolteacher from Maitland who says she opposes Plakon's support of "parent trigger" legislation that would allow parents to turn struggling public schools into privately managed charters.

On one side, the mailer had a photo of Sandusky wearing handcuffs and a prison jumper with the words, "Karen Castor Dentel would rather protect bad teachers and the union … than young and impressionable students." On the flip side, it had an image of Dentel and the claim that she would "use the courts to keep all teachers in the classroom – even those who prey on young people." That claim was apparently an attempt to attack her for opposing a 2011 measure by the state Legislature to eliminate tenure for teachers. She has no connection to Sandusky – or to any child molesters that we know of, for that matter – so his image was used purely for shock value and to mislead people.

Once the fliers started arriving in mailboxes, people started to cry foul and Plakon's campaign quickly distanced itself from them and the committee that sent them – with friends like these, who needs enemies, right? When the Weekly's Billy Manes (who's on vacation this week) called Plakon out publicly about the mailer on Facebook, Plakon quickly texted and called him to insist that he had nothing to do with it and that he also found its content despicable.

However, the Committee to Protect Florida is heavily supported by people Plakon should know fairly well – other House Republicans, namely incoming speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel), helped raise more than $200,000 for the committee this season – so the group isn't just a bunch of anonymous, mysterious private interests.

So we plan to hold Plakon accountable for statements he made to the Sentinel about this mailer and others like it, which help make political campaigning the dirty, despicable activity it's become, especially in recent years. Plakon said that he thinks this situation underscores the need for the Legislature to change campaign-finance law, so anonymous organizations can't issue irresponsible and underhanded attacks. "This stuff is out of hand," the Sentinel quoted him as saying. "This is exhibit A of why the process needs to be reformed."

So if you're returning to Tallahassee after this election, Plakon, that's going to be your first order of business, right? We thought so. We'll follow up with you in January.

The next order of business we hope somebody addresses in Tally next session: The early-voting clusterfuck Gov. Rick Scott created when he reduced the state's number of early voting days from 14 to a mere eight this year. If you tried voting early in this election, there's a good chance you waited in a long line to cast your ballot. Early-voting locations from Alafaya to Winter Park reported massive lines all week long, with some determined voters waiting as many as two to three hours to make sure their voices were heard in this election.

Making matters worse at one early-voting polling place was the matter of a couple of "suspicious" packages. Police were called to the scene to examine a very suspect insulated lunch tote that contained some unspecified electronics and other stuff. A bomb squad was called out and couldn't find any evidence of explosives, but police decided to err on the side of extreme caution. They closed the polling place and blew that shit right up. Then they had a bomb-sniffing dog search the premises, and when the dog was attracted to a bag of garbage it found outside, they blew that shit up, too.

Hundreds of frustrated voters, some of whom couldn't even leave because their cars were cordoned off in the area being investigated by police, spent the afternoon gathered on the library grounds. A few complained that they weren't being given any information by poll workers, and others said they thought police overreacted. One woman even told a reporter that she thought this was an attempt to deter people from voting. Another young woman, who said this was her first-ever time voting, said she'd never vote again after encountering this frightening debacle.

Fortunately, early-voter turnout this season was high despite the obstacles. Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles reported that, as of the close of business on Nov. 4, 127,583 early-voting ballots had been cast – 66,674 by Democrats, 34,113 by Republicans, 26,796 by people registered with other or no parties. In Seminole County, 66,719 people took advantage of early voting (with a nearly equal number of Democrats and Republicans turning up at early polling places), and according to that county's Supervisor of Elections, Mike Ertel, combined with the number of absentee ballots filed in advance of the election, 41 percent of the county's voting population had cast a ballot by Nov. 4. If that's not a testament to the popularity and success of early voting, we don't know what is.

Memo to Gov. Scott: The people – in both parties – want early voting, and it's insanely un-Democratic of you to intentionally deprive them of it.

Memo to the Winter Park police: Bomb-sniffing dogs may have special training, but they are still dogs. Sometimes they stop by garbage bags just because they like the smell of garbage.


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