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Robert Bender begins a new era for Escambia Elections

Escambia Votes

Former County Commissioner Robert Bender was sworn in as the new elections supervisor for Escambia County Wednesday afternoon. He was appointed to the position last week by Gov. Ron DeSantis following the departure of David Stafford, who left the position after more than 20 years to take a job with the federal government.

WUWF's Sandra Averhart spoke to Bendor Wednesday morning.

Sandra Averhart: How does it feel to have this job now?

Robert Bender: I'm very excited. Of course, I was already planning on being a part of the election process this year on the canvassing board, and I did it during the last presidential election in 2020. But, with everything that's going on, looking forward to taking the helm of a great department.

Averhart: Would say David Stafford, who held that post for about two decades, left it in pretty good shape?

Bender: Left it in great shape. Of course, we've worked together as the supervisor and the commission. We just, opened a new precinct in the Beulah area. They came to us — I was a commissioner — and asked for that. Also, there's some updated equipment and things like that that are in place. And so we're all learning a little bit right now with the new, software and things like that, but, ultimately, it'll all help lead to a safe, efficient, accurate election.

Averhart: Now, you were pretty comfortable on the Escambia County Commission in your second term. Why did you want the supervisor of elections job?

Bender: I received a lot of texts once I was appointed, and I was very appreciative of all the words that people. Honesty, integrity, you know, and detail-oriented are words that people used. And I think that's the thing is that they want someone that they can trust in this position. And so, really being a part of, the elections process in 2020 is how I got to know what went on in this office. Also being a candidate and helping candidates as they go through the process of their election are all things that I'm familiar with and something that is of great importance to me to be able to say in 2020, is that I can stand behind the results of the Escambia County elections. Being a member of the canvassing board team is great. I think it gives people comfort knowing the type of character and qualities that I bring to the office.

Averhart: Have you had any training? And can you talk about the timing of taking over this job with so much to learn so close to the presidential primary election in March?

Bender: Of course, I have to have training on the canvassing board. I'd already gone through that training, last year. We also had a special election for Century in 2023, where I served on the canvassing board for that. So in terms of the signature verifications and how the canvassing board works and a lot of those rules, I'm familiar with behind the scenes. I would say also that in 2020, I was not one to just sit at the table and watch everybody work. I would roll up my sleeves and get involved. I knew the various stages of what was going on in our building and how to run ballots and things like that. It's more of some of the details that we've had staff that were here longer than David Stafford, and so letting them do their all, you know, standing back, observing. I've sat through some training that we're giving the poll workers right now. Sonya Daniel is a great asset to this office, and so I'm glad that she's going to still be around as are all the staff. So we'll just continue to operate like they had been under David. And right now we're working on getting the ballots out that have to go out by Friday and just moving forward.

Robert Bender, David Stafford, and Lumon May at Stafford's farewell party.
Escambia County Supervisor of Elections
Robert Bender, David Stafford, and Lumon May at Stafford's farewell party.

Averhart: Now, voter turnout certainly could be better, not just here, but across the region and the state. Do you have any particular strategies for increasing voter participation? Have you thought about that yet?

Bender: Sure. A couple of weeks ago, I received something in the mail highlighting the three ways to vote. And so you do have vote by mail, which was changed this year. So everyone has to register to receive a vote by mail ballot this year. So if they received one previously, they're still going to have to sign up this year to do it. You still have your early voting locations and then your Election Day precinct locations. And so, again, it's making sure people know how to vote. I think that you will probably see a higher percentage of voter turnout this year because there were a number of people (who) were moved inactive if they hadn't voted in a certain number of elections. The office contacted them and asked if they were still there and if we didn't hear back from them, then they got moved to inactive status. So, just by having fewer active voters, I think we'll see a higher turnout percentage, even though there may not be more voters. But of course, with what's going on with the elections this year, a presidential election, we still expect to see high voter turnout.

Averhart: What concerns do you have about paid workers and your volunteers, the people who run the elections in this current climate of harassment and distrust of elections? Workers?

Bender: Again, that's why I was saying in 2020, as a candidacy board member, I stood behind the results that we had, because I think we have great policies and procedures in place. We share our security procedures with the state. It is very well thought out. Each step is defined. How we do things is all very much laid out, and if we follow those, then we'll have a successful election. We have multiple checkpoints. What I recall is we had some people's vote-by-mail ballots that we received on Election Day. They weren't sure that it would have been received in time, so they went and voted. Well, we didn't check that ballot in until we had checked to see if they had voted or not. So we didn't accept the vote by mail because they had done it in person. And so, you know, limiting those types of things is important. Again, I think the policies, and procedures that David Stafford and the office had put in place are what's going to lead to a successful election. You know, we have 15 minutes after the polls closed to get our vote by mail and early precinct, early voting site results out. I think when you see that in a timely manner and things run smoothly, it leaves little doubt on the results. We are looking forward to just running a safe, efficient, accurate election here for the presidential preference, in just over 45 days.

Averhart: Anything else that you want to say in closing about what your biggest challenges may be or things you're looking forward to most?

Bender: I think what I'm looking forward to most is continuing not only how this office is perceived, but the state of Florida, on how we run our elections. And I think from what we had seen in 2000 (hanging chads) to where we've become now, I think we are the gold standard for how states can run elections. And we've done that with the support of the legislature. So we don't have all these issues that you see elsewhere around the country. And so I think we are very fortunate that we have that in place, that they allow things for us to do, like count vote-by-mail ballots before Election Day.

We can get those results out 15 minutes after the polls close. All those things set us up for success. And so the security that we have, the systems that we have, the machines that can tabulate and read and everything like that are all what combined to run successful elections. And so I look forward to getting all my certifications just like I did when I was a county commissioner. Of course, going into the election year, I'll be able to have these elections under my belt (and) move the office forward. Right now, we don't see anything that needs major changing. But I'm a continuous improvement guy, so we'll continue to see how things run and what we need to improve. But, we also do a lot of customer service, right; you know, the voter registration change, if you change address, things like that. And so it's also the experience that the voter has coming in to vote. We want that to be smooth and enjoyable.

Averhart: One more thing. It sounds like it's a job that you would like to grow into, so I imagine you plan to run for the office.

Bender: Yes, ma'am, I do plan to run for it. And if there's a primary opponent, it would be in August. And then if, the general election, for anyone else.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.