Voters will decide if Gov. Rick Scott becomes a U.S. senator, and no issue in his time in office has produced more controversy than voting.
In the nation’s largest swing state, Scott’s actions on voting have angered county election supervisors, the League of Women Voters, college students and federal judges, one of whom recently dismantled Florida’s system of restoring voting rights to convicted felons.
The courts have repeatedly ruled against Florida in voting cases, including the recent decision by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, who ordered Scott to create a new process to restore felons’ voting rights.
Rather than comply, Scott called the judge’s actions “reckless” and is appealing.
“I served under five governors,” said Ion Sancho, retired supervisor of elections and a former Democrat turned independent, who held office for 28 years in Tallahassee until 2016. “This is the most self-serving and partisan governor that I ever served with in the field of elections.”
Scott’s voting controversies spanned his eight years in office.
▪ The state ordered Pinellas County in 2013 to stop the use of remote sites as a convenience for voters to submit mail ballots, but Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark defied the order and the state backed down.
▪ Scott’s Division of Elections blocked a request by the city of Gainesville to use the student union at UF as an early voting site in 2014, saying it was not a government-owned community center. The site was not used.
▪ Judge Walker in 2016 struck down a state law that rejected mail ballots if a voter’s signature on the ballot envelope did not match a signature on file. In a state with millions of older voters, the judge said the rule “categorically disenfranchised thousands of voters.” They can now update their signatures.
▪ Scott refused to extend the voter registration deadline in 2016 after ordering evacuations due to Hurricane Matthew. The Democratic Party filed suit and won a six-day extension.
The judge in that case also was Walker, who called Scott’s logic “poppycock” and said: “No right is more precious than having a voice in our elections.”
Under Scott, Florida had the longest lines at early voting sites of any state, creating indelible images of obstacles to voting in 2012, the year President Barack Obama won re-election.
That was a year after Scott signed the Legislature’s notorious House Bill 1355 that created new barriers to registering voters and curtailed early voting times.
It also ended early voting on the Sunday before Election Day, a practice known as “souls to the polls” that helped churches mobilize African-Americans, who support Democrats.
The historically long lines made a minor celebrity of Deseline Victor, a 102-year-old woman who stood under a sweltering Miami sun for three hours to vote.
Facing harsh criticism, Scott and the Legislature reversed course a year later by expanding early voting hours and locations and restoring optional early voting on the Sunday before Election Day.
Scott praised lawmakers for approving his call to make voting “more efficient, convenient and accessible.”
A spokesman for Scott said he has made Florida “one of the most voter-friendly states in the nation.”
McKinley Lewis cited Scott’s support for a new online voter registration option, a new law allowing Florida to share voting data with other states to reduce possible fraud, and federal money to improve security of a statewide voter database.
Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Mike Ertel said a new governor doesn’t have all the answers.
“So while Gov. Scott and I have not always agreed on elections-related issues, he has always been willing to listen, and after input, has often massaged his mindset to align with Florida’s elections administrators,” said Ertel, who disagreed with Scott’s initial reluctance to let voters register online.
As Scott embarks on a U.S. Senate race, he faces a new voting controversy. He’ll share the ballot with a proposal embraced by nearly a million Floridians who signed petitions to restore the right to vote to felons who have served their time, except for murderers or sex offenders. Scott said the proposal is “for each voter to decide on.”
A recent poll by Quinnipiac University showed that 67 percent of Florida voters support the change.
“Scott is mired in the past,” said Howard Simon of the American Civil Liberties Union, a leading supporter of the ballot initiative. “The ground is shifting out from under him.”
Weeks after taking office in 2011, Scott eliminated a streamlined system of restoring voting rights to ex-felons that allowed most to regain the right to vote without formal hearings. In its place, Scott and the Cabinet imposed a minimum five-year waiting period to apply for clemency.
“What compelling government interest is served by felon disenfranchisement?” conservative columnist George F. Will wrote this month. “This is not a legitimate objective for elected officials to pursue.”
An estimated 1.5 million people with felony convictions are permanently disenfranchised in Florida, more than 10 percent of the state’s registered voters.
The recent felons voting case was not the first time Scott’s actions on voting were struck down by federal courts. A judge ruled in 2012 that the state could not slap heavy fines on groups that register voters if they failed to turn in registration forms within 48 hours.
In addition, an attempt in 2012 to purge non-citizens from the rolls violated federal law because it occurred less than 90 days before a statewide election when such removals are barred, a federal appeals court ruled. Two women voters in Miami-Dade, both naturalized U.S. citizens, were shocked to see their names on a purge list.
Contact Steve Bousquet at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @stevebousquet
RICK SCOTT’S RECORD ON VOTING: A TIMELINE
2011: Leads effort to require minimum five-year waiting period for felons to apply for restoration of voting rights.
2012: Criticized by U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle for signing a law that made it harder to register voters.
2013: State issues directive banning use of remote drop-off sites for mail ballots but backs down amid opposition.
2014: Opposes use of Reitz Student Union at University of Florida as early voting site in Gainesville city election.
2016: Rebuked by U.S. District Judge Mark Walker for refusing to extend voter registration deadline during Hurricane Matthew, which required a mass evacuation.
2018: Ordered by Walker to scrap “fatally flawed” system of restoring voting rights to felons; state appeals.
Source: Times/Herald research