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Then and Now: A century of scandal for Florida elections

December 03,2018 07:17

Once again, Florida was recently embroiled in an election scandal. It took more than a week for the state to know who its senator and governor would be, but that's nothing new — Florida has had its share of election day mishaps. In 1887, Lake County ...


Once again, Florida was recently embroiled in an election scandal. It took more than a week for the state to know who its senator and governor would be, but that’s nothing new — Florida has had its share of election day mishaps.
In 1887, Lake County was formed from parts of Orange and Sumter counties. It took several elections and more than half a year before Lake County learned where it’s permanent county seat would be located.
Bloomfield, near Yalaha, was named the temporary county seat, but it was more than halfway into 1888 when the permanent county seat issue was finally resolved — maybe put to rest is a better way to put it.
Naturally, Bloomfield folks wanted their town to remain the county seat. Also in the running were Leesburg, the largest community in the newly formed county and once the Sumter’s county seat, Fort Mason, on northeast side of Lake Eustis, and Tavares.
Tavares founder, Maj. Alexander St. Clair-Abrams, had set his eyes on the city becoming not just the county seat but also the state capitol.
St. Clair-Abrams figured if it wasn’t important enough to be the county seat it would never be the capital. He began to push to put the courthouse in Tavares and provisions were made on the city plat for the buildings in the area surrounding the present library.
He also went to great lengths to make sure Tavares won the election to choose a county seat in the Jan. 27, 1888, election. He brought about 300 temporary railroad workers from Sanford and gave them a lavish barbecue, liquor included, and got them to cast already marked votes for the election.
That attempt to rig the election fell a little short, so St. Clair-Abrams put another plan into play.
He told the canvassing board to ignore the votes in the precincts that were most likely to favor Leesburg.
That did the trick, all too well. Tavares received 1,260 votes, Fort Mason 1,215 and Leesburg 2. It was obvious to state judicial officials that the election was rigged and the results were tossed out.
The third and final election was held on July 17, 1888. Tavares won that election with 1,170 votes. Leesburg received 917 and Fort Mason received only 1.
Those results stuck because Leesburg supporters couldn’t prove fraud.
And that wasn’t the end of it. It took some finagling and a midnight boat ride across Lake Harris to get the county records to Tavares.
They were brought to the Tally House, which became the county’s first courthouse, which is still standing.
It was replaced as the county courthouse when the Pioneer Building was constructed and later by the Historic Lake County Courthouse, which was replaced by the Administrative Building.
As an attorney once told me, Tavares didn’t steal the county seat. “I think appropriated is a better word.”

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