Democrats Blast Gov. Scott for Pressuring Monroe Supervisor

By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida
By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida


Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

Democrats accused Gov. Rick Scott of bullying the supervisor of elections in Monroe County on Wednesday, the latest salvo in the high-stakes battle over early voting in the November elections.

With Florida's 29 electoral votes expected to play a key role in deciding the contest between President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, a decision by three federal judges to block a controversial early-voting law in five Florida counties has sparked a heated debate over how to respond.

The three-judge panel struck down the law during the "preclearance" process. Because of a history of language and racial discrimination, the Voting Rights Act requires five Florida counties -- Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe -- to get approval from either the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court in Washington, D.C. for major elections process changes.

State officials expect in November to use the new law -- approved by the Legislature last year – in the other 62 counties, as they did in this month's primary. The change reduced the number of early voting days in those 62 counties from a maximum of 14 to eight. They also want the supervisors in the other five counties to submit a plan calling for 12 hours of early voting a day over those eight days, something the judges suggested could make the law acceptable there.

But Harry Sawyer, a Republican elections supervisor in Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, has refused, prompting Scott to suggest on Tuesday that he might suspend Sawyer. Former Democratic state Sen. Dan Gelber blasted that statement in a conference call Wednesday, saying Sawyer was simply following the D.C. court's decision.

"At this point, the only person doing precisely what he's supposed to do is the Monroe County supervisor of elections," Gelber said.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, also called on Scott to set aside the early-voting changes across Florida in response to the court ruling.

Joyner has filed a legal challenge with the Department of Administrative Hearings seeking to block an order by Detzner that the voting law changes take effect in the other 62 counties even before they were precleared. The judge in that case has delayed a decision, originally scheduled for Friday, in light of the federal ruling.

"[Scott] should accept that the new law is fatally flawed, and that all 67 counties in this state need to vote uniformly under the previous law that's in effect in the five covered counties," Joyner said.

Scott's office says Sawyer isn't doing his job by refusing to go along with the eight-day, 12-hour voting time frame in an effort to get it precleared. Late Tuesday, the governor's office released identically worded emails from the supervisors of elections in the other four preclearance counties.

"If the early voting changes in Chapter 2011-40 receive preclearance, Collier County would offer early voting for 12 hours per day on each day of the early voting period, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, for the November 2012 General Election," read the one from Collier.

In an email with the supervisors' statements attached, Scott spokesman Brian Burgess added that, "it's our view that Monroe County has a duty to present a plan that would meet pre-clearance requirements."

Meanwhile, Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced that some new rules regarding third-party voter registration groups had gained preclearance. But those rules don't include one of the more controversial provisions, which required those groups to turn in all completed registration forms within 48 hours; that was blocked by a federal court in Tallahassee in May.

"By the time the court has finished ruling on last year’s elections law, I am confident all 80 provisions of the law will be approved and Florida will be even better prepared to conduct elections in a manner that serves its voters' interests and needs," Detzner said in a statement announcing the approval of the third-party rules.



Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

Gov. Rick Scott issued a statement Tuesday that some read as a veiled threat to the Monroe County supervisor of elections, escalating a conflict over early-voting days in the run-up to the November elections.

Harry Sawyer, the Republican supervisor in Monroe, said Monday he didn't support an effort by Secretary of State Ken Detzner to get federal approval for Monroe and four other counties to reduce the number of early-voting days from as many as 14 to eight. Because of a history of racial or language discrimination, those counties must get "preclearance" from the U.S. Department of Justice or a federal court for any changes to voting policies.

The Legislature in 2011 passed a law that included reducing the number of early-voting days statewide, but a three-judge federal court last week rejected that change in the preclearance counties. The panel, however, said it could likely approve a reduction in the number of voting days if all five counties agreed to keep offices open for 12 hours on each of the eight days, which would maintain the same number of hours for voting.

"There is an easy and clear path for the five supervisors of elections to comply with their legal duties under both state and federal law," Scott said in the statement. "I applaud the four supervisors who have unequivocally stated that they will adopt an early voting plan that allows 96 hours of early voting from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. ... Moving forward, I will continue to take all necessary and appropriate action to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed, that supervisors are fulfilling their duties, and that the voters of this state have free and fair elections."

That was interpreted by some as a threat to remove Sawyer if he doesn't go along with the state's plan to try to get preclearance for the changes.

In a follow-up email, a spokesman for Scott said Sawyer was refusing to do what he needed to in order to implement the new law.

"Four of the five supervisors have stepped up and submitted a plan (consistent with the court’s recommendation to allow 96 hours of early voting), to obtain preclearance," spokesman Brian Burgess wrote. "It remains to be seen whether or not Monroe County’s supervisor of elections will step up and faithfully carry out the duties of his office."

Sawyer believes the number of early-voting days is more important than the number of hours, a stance he reiterated Tuesday. But Sawyer also said he will go along with the law if the state prevails in court.

"I have yet to say, and I will not say, that I will not follow what the district court in Washington says," Sawyer said in an interview late Tuesday.

Democrats, who have largely opposed a reduction in early voting days as an attempt to discourage black voters from turning out, slammed the statement.

"I strongly urge the governor to clarify or retract any remarks that would suggest he would remove the supervisor, who is set to soon retire, for simply carrying out his constitutional duties and responsibilities to voters," said outgoing House Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West, who represents Monroe.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said Scott "should be ashamed of himself" for issuing the statement.

“Republican Governor Rick Scott’s actions and implied threat to remove the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections -- who he considers an obstacle to his voter suppression goals -- are a slap in the face to all people who believe in free and fair elections," Joyner said. "And he continues to govern as if the state is his very own Florida Inc., and he’s the CEO."

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