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Committee pushes to keep 2 state jobs free of politics

A bill aimed at the secretary of state is amended to include the attorney general.

In the wake of the bitter election recount, many state officials have suggested making the secretary of state's job non-partisan.

On Wednesday, members of a Senate elections committee decided that the state should extend a ban on political activity to the attorney general as well.

Sen. Daryl Jones, D-Miami, introduced a bill that would have made the secretary of state's job non-partisan and banned the officeholder from attending political functions of any kind.

Other members of the committee objected, saying the state's attorney general could be equally compromised by participating in partisan matters while interpreting laws that apply to elections.

Secretary of State Katherine Harris was widely criticized last year because she was an honorary co-chairwoman of the George W. Bush campaign. She helped interpret election laws pertaining to a bitterly contested recount.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat who was the Florida chairman for the Al Gore campaign, gave contradictory interpretations of state election laws, but largely escaped criticism.

At a meeting of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, Jones said he was not attacking Harris, but strongly believes anyone who holds the office should remain impartial.

Although Jones' original bill would have made the post non-partisan, Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville, offered an amendment that simply requires both officials to stay out of anybody else's political campaign. They could work on their own campaigns.

"I believe this to be the sole flaw," Smith said. "We had people who were honorary chairmen and everything afterward was questioned."

It is the perception of bias that was the problem, Smith said.

"This is absolutely unnecessary," argued Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee. "It is so unappropriate to assume these people are acting unethically."

The bill did not address the question of county supervisors of elections or members of a canvassing board, but other bills pending in the Senate would require those officials to be non-partisan.

The committee will take a final vote on Jones' bill next week.

Committee members unanimously approved a bill that would make it easier to vote an absentee ballot as a convenience, a practice already followed in many counties.