ORLANDO, Fla. — It’s the end of an elections era as Bill Cowles, Orange County’s longest-serving supervisor of elections, officially retires Wednesday.

For more than 34 years, Cowles’ life has been focused on campaigns and ballots, but now he’s electing to make a change himself. He's stepping aside for a role, he said, is a bit more fitting for this point in his life. 

What You Need To Know

  •  Bill Cowles, Orange County's longest-serving supervisor of elections, will retire Wednesday

  •  Seven people filed to run for the seat in November's election

  •  Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will appoint an interim supervisor of elections

  • Cowles was elected to seven terms, overseeing 103 elections in more than 34 years

After a 13-year career with Boy Scouts of America, Cowles was hired at the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office in 1989. A few years later, in 1996, Cowles’ name appeared on the ballot for the first time.

He wasn’t the only "Bill" on that ballot — Bill Clinton (president), Bill McCollum (Congress), Bill Sublette (state representative), Bill Donegan (tax collector), Bill Cowles (elections supervisor). Nor was it the first his name would appear on.

Cowles won seven elections but is now choosing to leave office before the end of his last term.

“I’m going to be 70 years old this year,” Cowles said when asked why he decided to step down now. “The other part is, when one door closes, another door opens, and the door opened up that there is a house on a beach that became available, so we bought it, and we’ve been renovating it and oh, by the way, that house is right next door to my youngest son and my two youngest grandkids, so now, I’m going to have the chance to see my youngest grandkids grow up.”

Cowles said he is confident he is leaving the office at the right time, with an experienced staff in place that has more than 425 combined years of election administration experience who can guide his successor when elected. He had previously announced in 2023 his intent not to seek an eighth term.

In the days to come, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will appoint Cowles’ interim replacement. At least seven individuals have filed to run in the November 2024 election to replace Cowles.

A registered Democrat, Cowles said he is not worried about the Republican governor politicizing the appointment opportunity.

“I think the Governor’s Office and the secretary of state, who falls under the election responsibility, they have seen that we’re administrators of election law," Cowles said. "We’re administrators; we’re event planners, really. We’re not on the political side, and if you look at past appointments, they’ve either been people who have worked in (an) elections office, or have been in arenas where they’ve worked in the elections process, whether campaign or candidate, rather than political appointment because of contributions or whatever.”

Non-partisanship, transparency and trust are qualities Cowles said he has strived to focus on during his more than 34 years in elected office.

“People do not realize all of the checks and balances built into these processes, and let’s be clear, after 2000, we went to a touchscreen system and then in 2006, Gov. Charlie Crist said no, Florida is going to be a paper-based state. Every voter is going to vote on paper so we can recreate any election at any given time using paper,” Cowles said.

While Cowles won his first race in 1996 by a margin of barely 500 votes, no election was as close or consequential as the 2000 presidential election, redefining how Florida — and other states — conduct elections.

As supervisor of elections, Cowles oversaw 103 elections in his nearly seven full terms in office. He said he hopes his legacy is defined by the access and transparency his office built.

Adopting an idea from the Department of Transportation, Cowles created the Adopt-A-Precinct program after taking office in 1997. It’s since grown from an idea to a broad outreach initiative, with 127 local organizations and companies providing poll workers throughout Orange County.

“These groups are getting money, and what’s unique, they’re getting paid to be a poll worker," Cowles said. "That’s your tax dollars paying them, and they’re taking the money — Kiwanis Club, fraternities, sororities — and giving it back to the community in scholarships and other programs, so it’s your tax dollars being reinvested.”

While Cowles is electing to focus on family and grandchildren, he said he hopes voters don’t ever lose sight of the value of their voice and their vote.