MANATEE -- Manatee County Commission candidate Terri Wonder this week filed a complaint with the Florida Elections Commission against her opponent, Carol Whitmore, over claims Whitmore made about Wonder's voting record.
Whitmore, the incumbent Republican commissioner, said Oct. 1 at a Bradenton Herald debate Wonder, the Democratic nominee, had only voted twice in her life: in the 2012 general election and in the 2014 primary. Whitmore said the same thing at a Tiger Bay Club meeting the next day and started a postcard campaign with the same claim.
Wonder called the claim "absolutely false," and said she had moved around a lot because of her education and military background so her voting record is harder to track down. She also said she sent in absentee ballots while deployed as a U.S. Army civilian in Iraq, but those sometimes aren't counted.
Whitmore acknowledged Wonder's defense in a release, but said the problem was: "She offers no proof whatsoever."
Wonder said she sent two pieces of proof she registered
to vote in Sarasota County in the late-1990s and in Manatee County in 2000 to the Elections Commission.
She said old databases made the record difficult to find but a member of the Manatee County Democratic Party who keeps records had proof of Wonder voting in 2000, which was also included.
"(Whitmore) should've waited to receive her copy of the complaint," Wonder said. "The proof is all there. She just chose not to wait."
Upon hearing Wonder had proven she had voted in 2000, Whitmore said a candidate having a record of voting three times in 30 years is still an issue.
"If you can't vote as a citizen, I don't know how we can expect (Wonder) to vote on the hard issues as a commissioner," Whitmore said. "I'd have to check, but I think I've voted in every election since I turned 18. I've always felt, as a citizen of Manatee County and of the U.S., that you can't complain if you don't vote."
Wonder held a press conference Thursday afternoon saying she wanted to get back to the issues facing Manatee County rather than focusing on "utter fabrications."
"I've voted regularly throughout my life," Wonder said.
The complaint claims Whitmore violated a code preventing candidates from making false claims with malicious intent.
"I've been libeled and I have to defend myself," Wonder said. "This isn't about politics. This is something that could damage my reputation."
The Florida Elections Commission sends notice to the alleged wrongdoer within five days after an initial complaint is filed. The commission determines whether the case warrants an investigation, and gives the alleged wrongdoer 14 days to respond.
If officials determine an investigation is necessary, the case is turned over to the legal department, which resolves the issue through an informal hearing, a formal hearing or a consent order, which is akin to a settlement.
Cases can take no less than six weeks and have lasted more than a year, according to officials.
The complaint also goes into Wonder's military background, because Wonder claims Whitmore's use of the phrase, "Terri Wonder: AWOL on Manatee County Issues," is "defaming Dr. Wonder of the five years of service she devoted to our United States military."
Whitmore said Wonder is trying to deceive voters by saying she was deployed to Iraq and Wonder is impersonating military servicewoman.
"Unfortunately for her, Wonder was never deployed because she has never served in the military," Whitmore said. "She was merely a civilian contractor."
Wonder said her work, which involved making recommendations to military planners about the needs of the Iraqi people, was deemed "mission essential," and she was deployed to Iraq. She said she has been careful to say she never served in the military, but did work for the military, and calling her a civilian contractor is inaccurate.
"Impersonating military service is a federal offense," Wonder said. "That's a very serious charge."
Kate Irby, the online reporter at the Bradenton Herald. Contact her at 745-7055 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kateirby.