West Orange County voters will have to head to the polls in August to select their District 1 Orange County commissioner, following the entry of a last-minute write-in candidate.
The write-in candidate is 20-year-old Hannah Burns — stepdaughter of former county commissioner Scott Boyd, a longtime friend and supporter of incumbent Betsy VanderLey.
VanderLey and her challenger, environmental-law attorney Nicole Wilson, were slated to appear on the November ballot for District 1, which covers West and Southwest Orange County. But in June, at the end of the weeklong candidate-qualifying period, Boyd filed Burns’ paperwork to be a write-in candidate.
Boyd said his reasoning behind the maneuver was based on a dual-message campaign sign that the Rights to Clean Water PAC and Wilson’s campaign share. He said Wilson, Charles O’Neal — chairman of the Rights to Clean Water PAC — and political consultant Meyers & Washington collectively work together, which he believes raised financial concerns with Wilson’s campaign.
“After seeing the dual-message campaign signs, it became obvious that Ms. Wilson planned to run a legally questionable campaign of using the issue political committee to pay for her campaign,” Boyd said. “Her expense reports showed no expenditures for the signs that were already out. To make her run on her own merits and not draft off the PAC, I recruited a write-in candidate. Now she runs on her own in August, when we elect all of our judges, and the issue PAC will be in November. Nothing else has changed. All registered voters are still eligible to vote.”
Wilson said there are two separate entities on the campaign sign Boyd questioned, and she paid for her own marketing portion of it and listed it as a marketing expense. She added she spoke with Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles and confirmed her split sign was proper.
“I am a clean-water candidate, and I’m not going to back down from it, so if that’s a strategy to try to keep people from voting for me, I guess I’m just going to have to hang onto my beliefs that people in West Orange County want clean water,” Wilson said. “I know that that’s a ballot amendment. Both of those individual sides of that sign have their own disclosures.”
As a write-in candidate, Burns’ name will not appear on the ballot. Although state law states write-in candidates go on the ballot for the General Election in November, Orange County has its own charter under the provisions of home rule, which is silent on write-ins.
Under a legal interpretation from 2002 — when a write-in candidate for a County Commission seat first came up, Cowles said — a write-in candidate is considered equivalent to a regular candidate. Once three or more candidates — even if one is a write-in — have qualified for a county race, the election moves to the primary.
“From that standpoint, the county’s attorney office … said that when the candidate-qualifying (period) is over with — which was June 12 this year — you take the number of candidates for that contest and you include the write-in in that count,” Cowles said. “Under the county charter, the write-in goes in the total count of candidates and starts with the primary.”
VanderLey said she didn’t know of Boyd’s plan until he called her from the Supervisor of Elections office.
“I did not know about it in advance,” she said. “I found out about it after he’d done it. ... He’s a write-in on the Orange County Property Appraiser (race), so he did both on the same day.”
VanderLey said one advantage of moving the race to the primary election is that it allows for more separation from the presidential race and more focus on local issues.
“On one hand, I’m kind of happy to see it, because I feel like, ‘OK, now we can talk about local,’” VanderLey said. “In November, the only thing anybody talks about is the presidential election. It’s really, really difficult to have a conversation in the public about anything but presidential on a presidential cycle.”
There are write-in candidates in other local races this year, such as for Orange County Sheriff and Orange County Property Appraiser.
Wilson raised questions concerning the District 1 race, though, because of the connection between Boyd, Burns and VanderLey. Wilson said she believes Boyd recruited his stepdaughter as a write-in to force the primary election, where there likely will be fewer voters.
“The VanderLey-Boyd late write-in entry is consequential and will likely affect the outcome of this race,” Wilson said. “Even though the County Commission race is nonpartisan, it is no secret that Betsy is a Republican and I am a Democrat. District 1 currently has more registered Democrats. My name will be listed on the Orange County Democrat voter guide and likely in the union voter guides, so Betsy is avoiding any down-ballot benefit I might get in November. And the challenger has less time to fundraise and get name recognition. As an incumbent, she has a direct line to constituents through county communication … limiting campaign season limits the challenging candidate from getting in touch with voters.”