TALLAHASSEE — As Florida's chief elections official, Kurt Browning takes pride in guiding Florida through trouble-free voting since the chaotic 2000 presidential recount.
He has one final chance to get it right, and it may not be easy.
Browning, who will resign his post as secretary of state next month and head home to Pasco County, promised Gov. Rick Scott he would manage the Jan. 31 presidential primary, which will draw attention as the largest state so far in which Republican voters will cast ballots.
But his decisions set in motion a bifurcated situation in which 62 counties will run the primary under one set of laws and five others will run it differently.
Nowhere will this oddity be more noticeable than in Tampa Bay, where Pinellas and Pasco counties will operate under the new law and neighboring Hillsborough County will follow the old law.
That's because of Hillsborough's "covered" status under a key federal law.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a hallmark of the civil rights era, requires that any voting law changes must by precleared before they can take effect in five Florida counties with a history of racial discrimination: Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry.
The U.S. government has not yet approved four controversial changes to the election laws that legislators passed last year and Browning favors.
The changes affect early voting, voter registration and voters who have moved since they last voted. The changes are now before a panel of three federal judges in Washington, who are expected to rule in the spring.
A coalition of voter advocacy groups wants the judges to reject the changes, claiming they hinder voter registration efforts and are unfair to minority voters.
One of them, the American Civil Liberties Union, says Browning is leaving a mess to his successor.
"What does he leave behind? A certain amount of chaos," the ACLU's Howard Simon said.
The ACLU is angriest at Browning for asking the three-judge panel to end federal oversight of the five counties under the Voting Rights Act.
Simon added that Browning, who will resign Feb. 17, is not the same official who served in the same post under former Gov. Charlie Crist, or who restored public faith in Florida's electoral machinery after the meltdown of 2000.
"I think he had to become a cheerleader for the indefensible," Simon said of Browning's support for the new law. "I find it hard to believe that he's a true believer."
The job of making sure Tampa Bay voters know when and where to vote is largely being left to county officials.
Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard said he plans a high-profile media campaign to be sure voters are informed. "We'll put on a full-court press to educate our voters that we are in a separate and different situation," he said.
Absentee ballots have been flowing to elections offices for weeks. Through Thursday, 446,000 voters had requested absentees and 86,000 had returned them, a return rate of 19 percent.
Leading up to the presidential primary, Pinellas will have eight days of early voting and Hillsborough will have 12.
The 15 early voting centers in Hillsborough will open Monday, and five days later, on Saturday, three will open in Pinellas.
In addition, voters who have moved from another county since they last voted must cast provisional ballots in Pinellas, but they can cast regular ballots in Hillsborough.
Browning says criticism of the bifurcated voting system is overblown.
"No one wants that vote to count more than I. But I want someone to show me the numbers where provisional ballots are not being counted," Browning said. "I don't think they pan out."
In a much-criticized decision, Browning chose to implement the new law everywhere in Florida except for the so-called pre-clearance counties. He said he had no choice because the legislation had a provision saying it took effect "upon becoming law" — that is, when Scott signed it.
Long after Browning is gone, the controversy over the voting law changes will fester.
The law is the focus of a U.S. Senate field hearing in Tampa at 1 p.m. on Jan. 27. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., will conduct the session in Courtroom No. 1 at the Hillsborough County Courthouse in downtown Tampa. He has asked Scott to testify.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected].com or (850) 224-7263.