TALLAHASSEE — Citing "some hesitation," Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Friday that requires Florida to have an online voter registration system by 2017.
The decision was a pleasant surprise to legislators and county election supervisors because Scott's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, had run an aggressive one-man campaign to kill the proposal.
In a signing letter, Scott expressed concern about "the timing of required deliverables" that coincide with ongoing efforts to upgrade the state voter database.
"This system has been experiencing maintenance issues, which election supervisors have rightly cited as a challenge to their duties," Scott wrote.
Scott also raised the issue of cybersecurity, saying that added technology results in more challenges and vulnerabilities.
"Cyberattacks are on the front pages almost every day, and fraud and identification theft issues arise whenever a new avenue for information transmittal is created," Scott wrote. "While these challenges exist, I am confident that the Department (of State) and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles will act carefully and prudently in developing needed protection for citizen information."
The bill (SB 228), sponsored by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, is the most significant legislation sponsored by a Democrat in the 2015 session to clear Scott's desk.
Detzner must report to the Legislature by Jan. 1 on progress toward implementing the system, which must be in place by October 2017. The Legislature included $1.8 million in the bill to pay for the costs of implementation in an effort to overcome opposition by Scott.
Scott's decision eased the concerns of legislators, election supervisors and voting rights advocates, who feared he would veto the bill because of Detzner's opposition.
"It is a great day for Floridians & I applaud @FLGovScott for his decision to sign this good bill!" Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said on Twitter.
"He did the right thing for Florida voters," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.
Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said Detzner was wrong to fight against a proposal that had universal support among supervisors. "When you use specious arguments to oppose something that would benefit the people you work for, you lose all credibility," she said.
Clark suggested that Detzner immediately choose several election supervisors to work with his office on implementing the new system.
Across the country, 21 states have implemented online voter registration with five others, including Florida, taking steps to do so.
Duval County Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland, president of the state association of election supervisors, said Detzner called him Friday to let him know of Scott's decision. Holland said Detzner told him, "I think this is a good thing," which Holland said he found "hard to comprehend" in light of Detzner's fierce opposition to the idea in three legislative committee hearings.
At a Senate hearing, Detzner cited "forces of evil" bent on disrupting the 2016 presidential election in Florida.
"Many times it looked like it had hit a dead end," Holland said Friday. "We're excited to see Florida be recognized as one of the states that's ahead of the curve in elections and election technology."
Holland said Detzner has accepted an invitation to speak at the election supervisors' statewide conference in Kissimmee next month.
"We're going to ask him some tough questions," Holland said.
Three times in recent weeks, the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections had sought a face-to-face meeting with Scott to ease his concerns, but supervisors said the governor's office did not respond to their letters.
Detzner issued a statement Friday that said he "respects the decision of the governor and the Legislature on this bill. … The Department of State will commit 110 percent of its effort to ensure it is implemented correctly and safeguarded against security risks."
Detzner told reporters last week that Scott did not seek his guidance or input on the bill, and a spokeswoman for his office said Friday that had not changed.
Detzner's repeated opposition to an online voter registration form annoyed some lawmakers and likely played a role in the Senate's refusal to confirm him in the 2015 regular session. As a result, Scott was required to reappoint Detzner and he must be confirmed in the 2016 session or else he would have to resign.
The bill passed the House 109-9, and the Senate 37-3. All 12 legislators who opposed the bill are Republicans.
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.