Politics & Government

State's top elections chief faces harsh critics in Orlando

TALLAHASSEE -- As Florida heads toward a historic presidential election cycle with two home state favorites running, those in charge of orchestrating convenient, snafu-free voting statewide have charged the administration of Gov. Rick Scott too often works against them, rather than with them.

The ongoing tension was on display Wednesday in Orlando as Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Florida's top elections official, addressed a conference of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

Association leaders are still fuming over Detzner this year trying to torpedo online voter registration in Florida, which is offered in at least 20 other states and had overwhelming bipartisan support. His opposition came after he told supervisors he supported the initiative.

"You owe us an apology," said Duval County elections supervisor Jerry Holland, noting Detzner should have given them a heads up before he switched course on them. "We all want to have successful elections in the state of Florida, but, sir, to have effective communications, we're going to have to have you sometimes pick up

the phone and tell us where you stand."

Legislators have required Detzner to report on progress made toward implementing online registration by Jan. 1, and Pasco Supervisor Brian Corley said "We will ride him like Seabiscuit" to make sure he is making progress.

Several supervisors told him they wanted voters to be able to drop off mail ballots at remote early voting sites contrary to a directive Detzner issued just before Pinellas held a widely watched congressional special election in 2014. Detzner suggested that likely would require a change in the state law.

That prompted Manatee Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett, a former state senator, to urge Detzner to work with elections supervisors in every county on any legislative agenda he wants to pursue. Better to have "67 friends" trying to help you, he suggested.

"I'd like to see more cooperation," Bennett said. "And in order to have more cooperation you have to have more true, honest dealings back and forth with each other. Sometimes I don't feel like we've had that in the past."

Corley, the association's new president, noted Detzner in private meetings said he was enthusiastic about online voter registration but would have to check with Gov. Rick Scott. Then he later told reporters he never spoke to the governor about it.

"You told us in that meeting you had to talk to the governor, and then you told the media multiple times you hadn't spoken to the governor. So which is it, respectfully sir?" Corley said, suggesting Detzner either "misled" the media or the elections officials trying to work with him.

Detzner never directly answered the question but at one point did acknowledge to elections officials he does not have the final say on most matters.

"On any of these issues, while I may have a personal opinion, I am required to interact and interface with the governor's office," said Detzner.

Detzner has had a turbulent tenure since Scott appointed him in early 2012, facing bipartisan criticism for everything from a botched effort to purge non-citizens from the voter rolls to directives restricting early voting.

State senators were so dissatisfied they refused to confirm him this year, forcing Scott to reappoint him.

Detzner downplayed the tension Wednesday, saying he appreciated feedback from the supervisors and suggested he did not anticipate any more significant initiatives before the 2016 presidential election.

He said he scrapped plans for another non-citizen voter purge altogether after a federal ruling it cannot be done within 90 days of any federal election.

"We are on the verge of perhaps having the best election that we've ever had in 2016," Detzner told the group. "We all are challenged by next year with Marco Rubio, with Jeb Bush on the ballot, with (Hillary) Clinton who is some ways like a Floridian -- she is very well liked and has a great constituency. We are going to have an incredible experience, and also a United States Senate race is going to draw the kind of attention that has never been seen in Florida."

Local election officials are eager to join other states using a new system that makes it easier to maintain accurate voting lists -- scrubbing out people registered to vote in two places at once, for instance -- but Detzner said that would likely come after 2016.

Likewise, county elections leaders remain frustrated by how slowly his office wants to move toward online voter registration, a process they say should take just a few months and little money.

"He's still dragging his feet," said Polk County Supervisor of Elections Lori Edwards.