Lawmakers want major changes in fixing long voting lines


News Service of Florida

Some lawmakers are considering strengthening state officials’ authority to remove county supervisors of elections after voting snafus in November led to long lines and voter anger.

Details are sketchy; supporters haven’t come forward with a specific proposal yet, and at times seemed to be thinking out loud at a Tuesday meeting of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee.

But there were clearly at least a few Republican senators interested in putting pressure on elections supervisors — with the Legislature having come under fire for changes to the state’s voting laws pushed through by the GOP in 2011.

Supervisors in five counties — Broward, Lee, Miami-Dade, Palm Beach and St. Lucie — have been singled out as having performed poorly during the November elections. Florida was the last state in which a winner was projected in the presidential race, with a final call coming long after President Barack Obama was projected to have won re-election, and voters sat in line for several hours in some places to cast their ballots.

The Florida Constitution currently allows for suspension in cases of "malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony."

Among those strongly promoting the idea of cracking down on supervisors is Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who pushed the 2011 law through the Senate. Diaz de la Portilla suggested that the current standard for removing a supervisor in the constitution didn’t give the governor enough room to suspend supervisors who haven’t done their job.

"The only circumstance shouldn’t be gross negligence, well, that’s the only time they can do anything," he said.

Instead, Diaz de la Portilla said supervisors should be required to closely coordinate their elections plans with the secretary of state and then be held to them -- "to have some kind of stick, if you will, to be able to enforce that."

Lawmakers are wary of infringing on the governor’s authority to suspend supervisors, who are constitutional officers, and might instead ponder whether the secretary of state should make a recommendation to the governor.

"So I think the only question would be whether there would be some sort of mechanism to do a critical report on them in some fashion," said Ethics and Elections Chairman Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, who didn’t take a position on the issue.

Latvala, who will take the lead in crafting an elections bill for the Senate, was noncommittal about whether new standards for supervisors would be part of the measure.

Even with the current system, Secretary of State Ken Detzner said, he almost did refer some cases to Gov. Rick Scott for possible suspension before ultimately deciding not to do so.

"Without pointing any fingers and without calling out names, I would say that there were situations, both in the general election and prior to that, that the administration of an election in a county came very, very, very close in my opinion to a decision to have somebody relieved of their duties," he said.

Any move to give the state more power over local elections chiefs is likely to be opposed by the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

"I have an issue with an elected official being kind of mandated from an appointee in Tallahassee [about] how to do my job," said Pasco County Supervisor Brian Corley, legislative chairman of the association.

He told lawmakers that would be like giving the Florida Department of Law Enforcement the power to tell local sheriffs what to do. Corley also said there was already a check on supervisors.

"I think we’re accountable to the citizens of our county," he said.

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