Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott pressures Florida Keys elections chief on early voting

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott delivered an ultimatum Tuesday to the election supervisor in the Florida Keys, who is refusing to limit early voting to eight days for the November election.

Scott said he will "take all necessary and appropriate action to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed," a statement some elections officials said sounded like he's considering removing the supervisor, Harry Sawyer Jr. from office.

"He's trying to intimidate me, no doubt about it," Sawyer said.

Sawyer, the longtime Monroe County supervisor of elections and a Republican, insists on offering early voting for 12 days and that more people will vote if early voting takes place over a longer period.

Sawyer says the eight-day provision does not apply to Monroe, one of five counties in which any election law changes require preclearance by the U.S. government or federal courts because of past discrimination.

The others are Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee and Hendry, where election officials agreed to Scott's request Monday to provide eight days of early voting for 12 hours each from Oct. 27 through Nov. 3.

All four submitted identical emails to the state, pledging that if the early voting changes receive preclearance, they 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."

A panel of three federal judges Thursday refused to grant preclearance to the eight-day schedule, saying that it would discourage African-Americans from voting, a violation of the Voting Rights Act.

But the judges left a door open in their decision, saying that preclearance was "likely" if the five counties hold eight days of early voting for 12 hours a day to "provide the opportunity for voters to vote before and after the workday."

If the state can't win approval of the eight-day early voting schedule, it must conduct a presidential election under two early voting schedules — one in 62 counties and another one in the other five.

But every county is different, Sawyer said, and extending early voting until 7 p.m. in the Keys is a waste of money because people want to get home and eat dinner, not vote in the evening.

"I'm saying the turnout would have been even better, had they provided those extra days," Sawyer said.

Scott's criticism of Sawyer drew quick attention from election supervisors, many of whom bristled earlier this year when Scott tried to grade their performances. The state never made the results public.

Asked if he's considering removing Sawyer from office, Scott did not respond directly. "We want to make sure the five counties under the Voting Rights Act have 96 hours (of early voting)," Scott said. "I'm going to make that happen."

Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said the governor prefers all 67 counties offer 96 hours of early voting, but he won't demand it.

For example, Hernando County plans to offer 62 hours of early voting: seven eight-hour days and six hours on a Sunday. Supervisor Annie Williams said she would consider offering 96 hours, but employee overtime is a major problem.

"I've been having a hard time with my budget," she said.

Election supervisors are elected constitutional officers, similar to sheriffs, and they historically have jealously guarded their independence.

George Meros, an election law expert who has represented the state in the past, said Sawyer's stance puts him in a troubling position.

"You don't have the option to say, 'I don't like this law and I'm not going to enforce it,' " Meros said.

Meros said Secretary of State Ken Detzner, a Scott appointee, could sue Sawyer.

Some election supervisors questioned that.

"I don't know what the governor's powers are as far as removal from office, when it deals with preclearance," said Martin County Supervisor of Elections Vicki Davis, president of their statewide association.

Civil rights leaders and Democratic politicians, who say the new eight-day schedule is unfair to black voters, rushed to Sawyer's defense.

"Rick Scott is attempting to circumvent the Voting Rights Act, play political theater and achieve the obvious purpose of the Republican agenda: suppress the black vote," said the Rev. Charles McKenzie of Tampa, state coordinator of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Rep. Ron Saunders, R-Key West, the House Democratic leader, also defended Sawyer.

Times/Herald staff writer Brittany Davis contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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