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Embattled Florida elections chief goes on the defense

State auditors recently said Ken Detzner needs to improve his management of the voting system.
State auditors recently said Ken Detzner needs to improve his management of the voting system.
Published Aug. 1, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Under fire once again for lapses in oversight of Florida's voter database and lax communication, Gov. Rick Scott's top elections official says he'll "over-communicate" in the future.

For embattled Secretary of State Ken Detzner, it's an all-too-familiar refrain as he tries to improve his strained relationships with county election supervisors, who depend on a reliable database as they tabulate votes in Florida elections.

In a conference call with the executive committee of the supervisors association Thursday, Detzner spoke from a prepared script and said the addition of new database hardware is ahead of schedule and that he would soon make site visits to counties.

"I recognize the need to over-communicate our planning at the department," Detzner told them, according to a three-page script of his remarks.

Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, who has been critical of Detzner's performance, offered praise after Thursday's discussion.

"It was productive," said Corley, who called Detzner's promise of better communication "a positive step."

Tensions are escalating because the 2016 presidential election is drawing closer and any new voting problems in Florida would revive the state's reputation for voting irregularities and spiral into a national controversy.

State auditors recently issued seven specific warning signs, saying Detzner's agency needs to tighten management and security of the state voter database, train workers faster, improve disaster planning, and reduce the high number of temporary system breakdowns.

The database, which stores information on Florida's 12 million voters, is the backbone of election management in Florida.

In his talking points, Detzner called the recent audit "routine" and "for internal use at the agency." He claimed that every audit finding was previously reported to supervisors, a claim contradicted by Corley, who called the findings "troubling" and said it was "yet another case where information does not flow to all parties of the collective team."

In a separate memo to county supervisors, Detzner urged them to improve election planning, add more voting sites and buy new equipment to be prepared for the 2016 election.

Noting that Florida's presidential preference primary is next March, eight months away, Detzner cited "a number of tools to help you plan for the expected high voter turnout in 2016" thanks to reforms adopted by the Legislature and signed into law by Scott.

"There's lots of rhetoric," said a skeptical Lori Edwards, supervisor of elections in Polk County. "He credits the governor with 2013 reforms resulting in better early voting sites and polling places, tools for re-precincting, voting methods and voting systems. That wouldn't make it through the fact-checker."

That's another sore point to supervisors, who say they spent years lobbying Republican politicians in Tallahassee for more flexibility in early voting sites and times, including more weekend hours, before they agreed in 2013.

Supervisors are not familiar with all of the hardware changes. The level of distrust is so high that Palm Beach County Supervisor Susan Bucher made a formal public records request for the information on hardware but the result was "severely redacted," due to security concerns, and as Okaloosa Supervisor Paul Lux recalled, virtually worthless .

"We are the users of the system," Lux said. "I just don't see what the reluctance is. We're all supposed to be on the same team here."

Detzner has not been able to restore faith with supervisors after he initially endorsed their top legislative priority of an online voter registration system before he reversed himself and tried to sabotage it in the 2015 legislative session.

Even though 20 other states created online registration as an alternative to voters without problems, Detzner's Division of Elections warned the Legislature of "potential risks and challenges" that could "disrupt and delay" improvements to two databases the state uses to track voters.

Detzner could not convince his boss, Scott, to veto the bill, and the elections chief now faces a Jan. 1, 2016, deadline to report to lawmakers on the progress in implementing the online system by October 2017. He also awaits a fresh round of confirmation hearings in the Senate, which refused to confirm him last spring.

Soon after Detzner replaced Kurt Browning as Secretary of State in February 2012, he and Scott alienated county supervisors, who are elected, with a plan that was quickly scuttled to publicly assign a numerical rank to their job performances.

Detzner also clashed with supervisors over his efforts (also discarded) to scour the database for ineligible voters and to prevent Pinellas and other counties from using secure, remote dropoff centers for mailed ballots as a convenience to voters. His agency also denied the city of Gainesville from using the Reitz Student Union at the University of Florida as an early voting site in a city election last year.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.