TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's chief elections official is in big trouble with two key groups: state legislators who write the voting laws and county supervisors who run elections.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner can't afford to alienate either constituency as Florida heads toward a presidential election in 2016, when the eyes of the nation will again be on the biggest battleground state.
Lawmakers blasted Detzner Wednesday for fighting their plan to let people register to vote online by October 2017. Elections officials, meanwhile, were livid to learn that Detzner released private data on more than 45,000 voters — including judges and police officers — and didn't alert them immediately.
Detzner's office acknowledged that the security breach on so-called high-risk voters — who should have been exempt from disclosure — included judges, police, firefighters, prosecutors, public defenders and crime victims and their family members, among others.
By law, those voters can choose to keep private information that's generally public on the voter rolls, including birth dates, home and email addresses, party affiliations and phone numbers if provided.
"Their safety has been compromised," said Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards.
Detzner's office said it gave the data to 15 individuals or groups that asked for copies of the statewide voter database, and cited a malfunction in automated software which it says has been fixed.
The secretary of state quietly announced the problem on March 31 and posted a news release on the agency's website, but neither the news media nor election supervisors were notified.
The release said all 15 recipients of the data have been told to disregard, destroy and/or return the information while it works to notify the affected people. The state did not identify who obtained the information.
Detzner's office called the released information "non-confidential" but election supervisors said that is wrong. Supervisors noted that the form provided by Detzner's office for high risk voters is called an "identification confidentiality request."
"This information is confidential by Florida statute," Edwards said. "We were not notified."
In emails among election supervisors obtained by the Times/Herald, Alachua County Supervisor Pam Carpenter said one voter asked to be removed from the rolls, and Sarasota County Supervisor Kathy Dent asked her colleagues: "Why did they not send this (release) to us or at least let us know something?"
Detzner got much rougher treatment in the Capitol on the online voter registration issue.
He did not testify before a House committee, which passed the online registration bill with one dissenting vote, but he did not get off so easily in the Senate, where lawmakers demanded he answer questions.
"You didn't have to come today. You weren't invited to come," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, glaring at Detzner. "I think the patience of the Legislature on this issue has been stretched."
Twenty states have implemented online voter registration, including such "red" Republican states as Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, and four more are doing so.
In Florida, the idea has unanimous support from all 67 county election supervisors, who say it will save money, reduce the risk of voter fraud and increase the pool of potential voters.
Yet Detzner told a Senate committee he was concerned there was no plan for overhauling state computer systems by the 2017 deadline. "I would express great caution and concern about going forward."
An analysis of the proposal by Detzner's staff questioned whether "adequate security" exists for online voter registration.
As Detzner went on at length about why online voter registration is a bad idea, Latvala could be heard whispering into a live microphone, "This is so much bulls---," according to the Florida Channel's videotape of the hearing, which is online.
Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley heaped more criticism on Detzner, whose shaky relations with county supervisors may have worsened as a result of his opposition.
Supervisors said Detzner was silent on the issue for months and recently asked that online registration be delayed until after the 2016 presidential election. Legislators agreed to push back the date to October 2017, only to face more opposition from Scott's administration.
"This might be a new low in a lack of credibility for the Department of State as it relates to this issue," Corley said, calling Detzner "impotent" for trying to block a convenience for voters that he said other states have implemented "seamlessly."
"We're supposed to be leading the nation in voting reforms, not be a laughingstock," Corley said.
After the hearing, Detzner said his agency, lawmakers and supervisors should work as a team heading into the 2016 presidential election. "We should keep focused on working together, not name-calling," he said in a statement.
Some lawmakers have speculated that his opposition relates to Scott's interest in running for U.S. Senate against Democrat Bill Nelson in 2018, but Detzner denied that was a factor.
Donald Palmer, who ran Florida's elections division from 2008 to 2011, helped create online voter registration in Virginia in 2013 with a Republican governor and Legislature.
He said it took six months and cost $120,000, and that Florida is far ahead of where Virginia was because the Sunshine State has a modern electronic voter database and driver license system.
"Now is the time," Palmer said. "It's easier to make the changes now than it ever would be."
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com. Follow @stevebousquet