Browning Returns as Secretary of State

By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida
By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Jan. 5, 2011 --

Kurt Browning, a former local official who was widely respected for his knowledge of running elections, will return to lead the Department of State, which oversees the Division of Elections, from which he recently retired, Gov. Rick Scott announced late Wednesday.

Browning, a former supervisor of elections in Pasco County, retired in April after three years as secretary of state under Gov. Charlie Crist. The secretary of state has been an appointee of the governor for several years; it used to be an elected position on the Cabinet.

Scott said in a release sent out after hours Wednesday that Browning had a “well earned reputation for orderly, fair and error free elections,” and that he had earned praise for his work as a “hands-on leader.”

And he did. Browning was the first former local elections official to head up the Department of State and had been a high profile local elections official, in part because he had worked in the field for so long. He was supervisor in the Gulf coast county from 1980 to 2006, and was often cited as an expert on voting processes.

Browning retired earlier than he wanted, stepping down at the end of April because he had set his retirement date in 2010 in the Deferred Retirement Option Program. But then a new law was passed in 2009 law aimed at making it harder for state workers to retire and then return to work and draw a pension and a salary. Under the new law, they must sit out six months, which Browning has now done. Browning said in 2009 that he didn’t want his pension until he retired, but it appears that he now will be receiving a pension, in addition to a new state salary, which wasn’t disclosed by Scott’s office Wednesday. The announcement was made after hours and Browning couldn’t be reached for comment.

The secretary of state has a wide-ranging job description, ranging from historic preservation to overseeing libraries and the state’s Division of Corporations. But the Division of Elections is its most high profile office.

While he was secretary of state, he oversaw Florida’s backtracking away from touchscreen machines, which had been heralded as the less error-prone alternative to punchcard ballots after the 2000 election debacle, but quickly came under fire as suspect because they didn’t have an auditable paper trail that would satisfy skeptics. It was an awkward position for Browning, who had supported touchscreens, but went along with Crist, who was responding to a public outcry.

Florida, pushed by Crist and former Congressman Robert Wexler, moved away from touchscreens, returning to preservable paper ballots, but in the form of the optical scan ballots that have proven far more reliable than punch cards. Browning oversaw that move from the state agency that works with the 67 counties – where nearly all supervisors of elections are independently elected - to implement voting laws and regulations.

“Kurt Browning has an unmatched ability to manage and coordinate the efforts of Florida’s … independently elected Supervisors and to work with them to ensure Florida’s elections are a model of fairness and integrity, ” Scott said announcing Browning’s pick.

In addition to certifying voting machinery, the Division of Elections oversees much of the process of an election – everything from serving as the place where candidates file their paperwork to run for office, to recording campaign contributions to running the public campign financing system.

The actual elections at the local level are managed by elected supervisors in 66 counties, and an appointed election supervisor in home-rule Miami-Dade County.

His role as head of the Division of Corporations will be important to Scott, who is trying to reduce red tape. Scott noted that Browning brought online filing to the agency, eliminating paper records and saving money.

The appointment of Browning, and all of Scott’s agency head appointments so far – Community Affairs Secretary Billy Buzzett, Environmental Protection Secretary Herschel Vinyard, Corrections Secretary Edwin Buss and Emergency Management Secretary Bryan Koon – have all been announced with no fanfare, unlike in previous administrations, when governors have held news conferences to introduce most new agency heads.


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