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  1. Opinion

Effective as leader during hurricane, Scott fumbles on its voting ramifications

Since 2010, when Rick Scott was first elected governor of our fair state, he has been at the forefront of multiple efforts to suppress voting rights.

Ponder the irony of that while recalling attempts by his administration at a voter purge in 2012, dubiously entitled "Project Integrity." Remember how, in the same election year, Scott tried to restrict registration drives and reduce the number of early voting opportunities.

That was widely seen as a strike against minority voters, especially in largely African-American districts. They tend to vote Democratic. He was at it again last week when in the wake of Hurricane Matthew he declined to extend the registration deadline for November's election.

His pithy reason: People already had enough time to register.

U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, ruling on an emergency appeal by the Florida Democratic Party, called the state's plan "unconstitutional" (several times) and — in maybe my favorite judicial description ever — said the notion that these things are about politics is "poppy­cock."

"This case is about the right of aspiring eligible voters to register and to have their votes counted," Walker wrote. "Nothing could be more fundamental to our democracy."

Still, it seemed prudent to check with Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer. Did the ruling cause him any problems?

"No," he said. "We always get a crunch of registrations at the deadline anyway. We have the staffing to handle it."

Latimer is one of the good guys. I think if he had his way, every single eligible voter in Hillsborough would turn in a completed ballot. He makes it as easy as possible for people to participate. He gets information out early about how to register, where to vote, how to get a mail-in ballot. Everything.

He is as non-partisan as it gets.

"There is politics and there are elections," he said. "We run elections."

While Matthew didn't hit Hills­borough, chances are strong that people here were caught up in concerns for family and friends in the areas that were in the hurricane's path. The last thing those people needed to be concerned with was the election.

Rick Scott knows that. The shame of it was Scott was a good leader in the crisis. He was on every television set, warning people to leave. His language was forceful. "This storm will kill you," he said. It can be argued his performance helped save lives.

But that comes with another contradiction. As Judge Walker noted, "it is wholly irrational in this instance for Florida to refuse to extend the voter registration deadline when the state already allows the governor to suspend or move the election date due to an unforeseen emergency."

At the time of my chat with Latimer, about 830,000 voters in Hillsborough had registered. There could be thousands more by Election Day, thanks to those last-minute voter drives that Scott appears to loathe.

That's the "crunch" Latimer referenced. Such drives are going on all over the state. They appear to attract more Democratic registrants, which makes sense. There are about 65,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. I guess that explains why a Republican administration would try to reduce access to the ballot box while Democrats would go to court to protect that.

"We always get inundated with third parties turning in registrations," he said, referring to organizations like Rock the Vote and the Florida League of Women Voters. "But it's not a problem. It just means more people are voting."

That's what everyone should want.

Stuff like what happened here, though, is a big reason why distrust in government is rampant. When the top elected official in the state takes every chance to freeze people out of what Walker called "one of our most precious freedoms," we all lose.

Or put another way, it's poppycock.

Contact Joe Henderson at joehtampa@gmail.com

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