Florida Gov. Rick Scott's office released a statement Thursday afternoon on the state's application of new early voting laws, amid speculation that the press release amounted to a not-so-veiled threat against the Monroe County supervisor of elections.
A week ago, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia denied approval to part of Floridas 2011 elections law, as it applies to five of the states counties. The court determined that the provisions reducing the early voting period will have the effect of denying or abridging the right to vote of minorities living in Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough, and Monroe. The counties have a prior history, in previous decades, of denying the vote to racial minorities, and under the federal Voting Rights Act (VRA) must have any changes to their elections laws precleared by the U.S. attorney generals office or the D.C. circuit court.
The court did suggest that one way Florida could adjust its early voting scheme without running afoul of the VRA was to reduce the number of days polls are open while simultaneously keeping them open for more hours each day, thus maintaining exactly the same total number of hours for early voting as under the [pre-2011] law: 96 hours.
That is exactly what Scott hopes to implement.
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, said Scott in his Thursday statement. I applaud the four supervisors [of Collier, Hardee, Hendry, and Hillsborough counties] 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. Such steps will comply with the federal courts opinion.
But in emails to Deputy Secretary of State John Boynton, provided to Sunshine State News by Scotts office, the supervisors own statements were far from unequivocal. They promise to adopt the proposed new scheme only if the federal court preclears it; they neither endorse nor contest the proposals.
For his part, Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer of Monroe County -- a lifelong Republican who has held his office for 24 years and is retiring in January -- has made no secret of his disdain for the new law and the negative impact he believes it will have on his countys voters.
Governor Scott talks about the great turnout in the state of Florida for early voting this last primary, and I think thats great as well. And to that I say: Just imagine if the other counties were allowed to keep their polls open for as long as we were, Sawyer said to Sunshine State News. Imagine how much greater the turnout would have been. Since its inception, early voting has increased in every single subsequent election in Monroe County.
In what commentators are reading as a veiled threat against Sawyer, Scott vows to continue to take all necessary and appropriate action to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed [and] that supervisors are fulfilling their duties.
Asked whether he interprets that as some sort of threat, Sawyer is nonchalant. Veiled or otherwise, its an inappropriate statement to make. Thereve been a couple of veiled threats that have come from the secretary of state as well as from the governors office, Sawyer said. The governor cannot remove me from office. How many months do we have left until January, when a new supervisor takes office [in Monroe]? I dont take this as his trying to remove me from office. Hes just trying to do what he can to make me change my mind.
Under the Florida Constitution, the governor may not remove an elected county official from office, but he may suspend him while the state Senate determines whether he should be removed or reinstated.
Reach Eric Giunta at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859.