UPDATE: Gov. Rick Scott laid down the gauntlet Tuesday against a reluctant Monroe County supervisor of elections who has failed to agree with the administration over early voting law compliance.
Scott said in a statement released by his office Tuesday that he is willing to “take all necessary and appropriate action to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed, that supervisors are fulfilling their duties, and that the voters of this state have free and fair elections.”
His statement comes a day after Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer said that, as a result of a federal judge’s ruling, he would offer 12 days of early voting and eight hours on each day, in an apparent defiance of state law that requires that early voting operations continue for no more than eight days with 12 hours each day.
Sawyer called the governor's statement inappropriate and said he continues to oppose the eight-day schedule.
Monroe is one of five counties in which the election law has not yet taken effect because they must first get approval from the federal government or federal courts because of past evidence of discrimination.
A federal court ruled last week that eight days of early voting could depress African-American turnout but the court opened the door to only eight days if each of the counties agreed to remain open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner have since tried to get five counties to agree to extend the voting hours but leave the number of days for early voting at eight.
The other counties, Hillsborough, Collier, Hardee and Hendry, have agreed to Scott’s recommendation to keep polls open for only eight days of early voting but open them for 12 hours each day. The Department of State will seek the pre-clearance on their behalf and is hoping to get approval for the change soon, said Chris Cate, Department of State spokesman.
On Tuesday, supervisors of each of the four counties submitted identical emails to the department pledging that "if the early voting changes in Chapter 2011-40 receive preclearance" their county would "offer early voting for 12 hours per day on each day of the early voting period, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day, for the November 2012 General Election."
Sawyer, a Republican who is retiring after 24 years and is not seeking re-election, said Monday that “the days are more important than the hours” and said he believes the new eight-hour early voting schedule implemented by legislators in 2011 “does discriminate against minorities and working people.’’
He said Tuesday that he was particularly incensed at background provided to Scott's statement that said that people are trying to "score political points" by defending the old, 14-day early voting schedule.
"I'm a Republican. I have always been a Republican,'' Sawyer said. "I'm known for not doing those things. That is not the kind of legacy I plan to leave behind me when I leave this office."
George Meros, an election law expert who has represented the secretary of state’s office in many court cases, said the governor has the authority to remove a supervisor from office for failing to follow the law.
“You don’t have the option to say I don't like this law and I’m not going to enforce it,’’ Meros said. “Challenge the law or resign.” He cited the Florida state Constitution and Florida statutes, section 97.012, (14) and (16), for giving the governor the authority to remove an elected county official, such as a supervisor of election.
Scott spokesman Brian Burgess said that while Scott supports having all the other 62 counties in the state extend their hours to comply with the full 96 hours allowed under the law, he is not requiring it.
"The other counties should offer the appropriate number of hours that meet their particular needs,'' Burgess said. "All supervisors have a duty to comply with the law, and given the court’s guidance as it relates to pre-clearance, four of the five have agreed to submit plans of 96 hours for 12 hours per day – and we think that is the right course."
Scott commended the four supervisors who agreed to limit early voting to eight days. The change must still get approval from the federal court.
Here’s Scott’s statement:
“I fully support early voting to increase participation in our elections. And I support the use of the maximum number of early voting hours as is appropriate in each county. There is an easy and clear path for the five supervisors of elections to comply with their legal duties under both state and federal law.
“I applaud the four supervisors who have unequivocally stated that they will adopt an early voting plan that allows 96 hours of early voting from 7 a.m to 7 p.m. Such steps will comply with the federal court’s opinion. These supervisors have a duty under state law to implement the new system, and a duty under federal law to obtain federal approval of that plan. Moving forward, I will continue to take all necessary and appropriate action to ensure that the laws are faithfully executed, that supervisors are fulfilling their duties, and that the voters of this state have free and fair elections.”
-- Mary Ellen Klas and Steve Bousquet