October 02, 2015

Analysis: 1 in 3 Florida legislators were elected without a single vote

@ByKristenMClark @MaryEllenKlas

When Florida lawmakers return to Tallahassee for another redistricting special session on Oct. 19, they will talk a lot about how to comply with court guidelines when redrawing state Senate districts, but they’ll say much less about how competitive to make them.

That’s because in 2012, lawmakers redrew the House and Senate maps to adjust for population changes in the decennial census and to comply with the new anti-gerrymandering amendments to the state constitution. The result: a third of all legislators were elected in their last election without a single vote. They got here by default.

Legislators wield tremendous power in Florida — from crafting the state’s annual budget and determining how much taxes people pay to deciding whether to implement environmental preservation spelled out in Amendment 1.

Drawing the political boundaries for the next decade through redistricting is like creating the rulebook for who calls the shots.

With that as the backdrop, the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times examined how many votes each legislator received in their last election, and assessed the intensity of competition and voter support for all 160 of them.

October 01, 2014

Floridians in 2012 waited longer to cast ballots than voters in any other state


Voters in Florida waited far longer than those in other states to cast their votes in the 2012 election, hampered by long ballots and cutbacks in early voting options, according to a new report by congressional auditors.

Voters in the state stood in line more than 34 minutes on average, significantly longer than ballot-casters did in any other state reviewed by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’ watchdog.

The shortest waits? Alaska, at just 1.4 minutes.

Three others states had wait times about 25 or more minutes: Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina. But most of the others fell somewhere between five minutes and 20 minutes, on average.

In Florida, the GAO estimated, 16 percent of voters waited 61 minutes or more to cast their ballots — tops among the states surveyed.

“People should not have to stand in line for hours to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, said in a statement.

More here



June 25, 2013

Scott not pressing FDLE for details on voter fraud cases

Gov. Rick Scott is showing zero interest in following up on the state’s efforts to investigate voter registration fraud.

When asked at a news conference Tuesday if he’s reviewed either of the two cases closed by the state’s Department of Law Enforcement into a vendor hired by the Republican Party of Florida, Scott had a one word reply: “No.”

As the Times/Herald reported last week, a Jacksonville case involving two former employees of the vendor, Strategic Allied Consulting, was closed in January (and released to the media in March) after the employees admitted to forging voter registration forms. Because both employees had clean criminal records, they only served probation. But FDLE investigators closed the investigation before they interviewed the supervisors of the two employees. One of the supervisors, Jeff Jewett, said he was surprised no one from the state contacted him, considering he was the one who blew the whistle.

Could FDLE investigators have found more fraudulent forms if they had bothered to interview Jewett and other employees in the offices? Possibly. Ray Robbins worked in Jewett’s office and estimated that 20 percent of the forms turned in were forged. Yet investigators didn’t interview Robbins either.

Continue reading "Scott not pressing FDLE for details on voter fraud cases" »

June 20, 2013

FDLE closes second voter registration fraud case involving GOP vendor, makes no arrests

Nothing to see here, move along.

That’s basically the conclusion of a criminal investigation into a GOP vendor that was released by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Thursday.

Investigators found at least 11 voter registration forms filled out in Lee and Charlotte counties that were fraudulent: addresses were wrong, people were given the wrong Republican Party affiliation, some basic information was incorrect.

But when FDLE investigators tracked down employees for the GOP vendor that filled them out, they employees denied any wrong-doing.

“Based upon a lack of evidence, witnesses, and the access to voter registration cards by numerous (vendor) employees, no further investigative activities will be initiated in this case,” the report concludes.

Case closed. No arrests.

That’s good news for the Republican Party of Florida and the vendor they hired last year, Strategic Allied Consulting, to register voters. The firm ran afoul of the law when an elections worker in Palm Beach County flagged questionable forms after spotting irregularities.

The case exploded in a media firestorm as it was learned questionable registration forms the vendor had filled out were found in a dozen counties. The RPOF soon fired Strategic Allied Consulting, and the vendor quickly fired at least two employees that were involved in the fraudulent forms.

It was all kind of embarrassing for the Republicans, who had made ACORN a really big deal. You remember ACORN -- the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now? It was the nation’s largest community organization advocating for low and moderate income families. After a series of controversies, it disbanded in 2010.

That didn’t matter to Republicans who wanted to use the left-leaning group as an example during the next election cycle. They pounced on the group’s voter registration efforts. During the 2008 election, ACORN claimed it signed up to 1.3 million voters, but it was later revealed that 30 percent of that total was rejected for various reasons. In Florida that year, ACORN’s Florida organizer alerted Miami-Dade County law enforcement that 1,400 voter registration forms the group had collected — but hadn’t turned into elections officials yet — appeared to be problematic.

An investigation led to 11 ACORN workers charged for falsifying information on hundreds of forms, with penalties ranging from probation to 125 days in jail.

Although ACORN blew the whistle on itself and the group wasn’t prosecuted for further fraud in the state, Republicans alleged that ACORN helped steal an election. In 2011, Republicans passed HB 1355, which imposed tighter deadlines for third-party groups to submit voter registration forms and imposed $50-a-day fines if they didn’t turn in the forms within 48 hours.

“Did they forget ACORN already?” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Gainesville, responding to critics who alleged the new law intended to suppress the vote.

But with no ACORN around in 2012, it was Strategic Allied Consulting that became the bête noire for honest electioneers. And that meant serious ironical blowback for Republicans.

Just as the whole case threatened to blow up, however, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced they would investigate. And in Florida, that meant that state law allowed state officials to stop talking about it. Cases are confidential until they are closed.

Gretl Plessinger, an FDLE spokeswoman, said there are three ongoing cases involving Strategic Allied Consulting in Miami, Pensacola, and Tallahassee. No details could be revealed about those. Another case, in Jacksonville, closed earlier this year. Two staffers admitted to forging forms, but investigators stopped the investigation and never interviewed supervisors.

The case that closed Thursday involved 16 “suspicious” voter registration forms in the Fort Meyers area. FDLE agents tracked down each form and found 11 were fraudulent.

Four people listed on registration forms used the same handwriting to fill out the applications. The addresses didn’t match up. Four people claimed someone listed their party affiliation as Republican, even though they weren’t. One form’s address for a new registrant led investigators to a construction site. One woman said she didn’t fill out any information, but was listed anyway as signing up to vote. One woman refused to speak with investigators, saying she already told elections officials that someone had incorrectly registered her to vote.

Investigators interviewed three former staffers with Strategic Allied Consulting. But all three said they had no more information to provide. None of them admitted to forging the forms.

Although agents notified the state’s Division of Elections that the casee was closed on April 15, the case wasn’t released to the media until Thursday. That timing was similar to the Jacksonville case, which was closed in January, but not released to reporters until March 5 -- the first day of the legislative session.

And unlike the 2011 session, when ACORN was invoked repeatedly by Republican lawmakers, Strategic Allied Consulting was nary mentioned during this year's session.

No ACORN here. 

State officials skipped interviewing key witnesses in GOP voter registration fraud case

TALLAHASSEE — Criminal investigators couldn't find a better witness than Jeff Jewett.

Last year, Jewett was the field coordinator for a private vendor used by the Republican Party of Florida in Jacksonville, overseeing a staff of 32 people registering voters. He discovered that one of his employees turned in seven bogus forms: fake addresses, non-working phone numbers, multiple signatures made in the same handwriting. He fired the employee, contacted elections officials and turned in the counterfeit forms.

Jewett's tip launched voter registration fraud case JA-32-0001 that would take Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents three months to close. The employee, a University of North Florida college student, admitted to investigators that he forged the forms. Because he had no criminal history, he got probation and was sentenced to 50 hours of community service.

Case closed, right?

Sure, except for one thing.

Jewett, the one who reported the crime, the one who supervised the employee and could best inform investigators if this was an isolated case or was more systemic, was never interviewed.

"I was surprised," Jewett said. "I figured they'd be interested in talking to me considering I was the one who turned him in."

Such a lack of initiative is baffling for an investigation into a crime that Gov. Rick Scott and Republican lawmakers had made a top priority in prosecuting and preventing. In the 18 months leading to last year's presidential campaign, they said the specter of voter registration fraud was so great that it was necessary to push for a purge of ineligible voters and a new law that made it harder to register voters.

Story here


June 12, 2013

Five candidates get free pass for mistakes in disclosing finances

The Florida Commission on Ethics issued separate orders Wednesday finding that five current and former state lawmakers -- including former State Senator Ronda Storms -- filed incomplete financial disclosures last year.

But because the candidates filed amended disclosure forms that investigators determined were complete, the Commission decided to take no further action.

Storms, a former Hillsborough County Commissioner who served in the state senate from 2006 to 2012, was flagged when she filed a disclosure form on her 2011 income when she ran for Hillsborough County Property Appraiser last year.

Eugene Benson, an 82-year-old Vero Beach resident, filed that complaint against Storms, alleging four violations: 18 cents she reported as income was “contrived”, that she didn’t list all the properties she owned, she didn’t specifically describe her assets, and she didn’t list secondary income derived from a landscaping business.

Investigators found only that Storms didn’t specify her assets. She affixed a value of  $10,248 to “cash checking savings” and a value of $18,840 to “prepaid college.”

Storms told investigators that she should have described the savings as deposited with Suncoast Schools Federal Credit Union and the other asset as “Florida prepaid college fund.” She filed an amended disclosure, but the Commission stated that the initial omission “deprived” the public of information it was entitled to.

On Wednesday, Storms said knew about the complaint, but not about the order issued by the Commission that no further action would be taken.

Continue reading "Five candidates get free pass for mistakes in disclosing finances" »

May 21, 2013

Gov signs elections law fix, reversing GOP changes and ending early primary

Gov. Rick Scott has finished the fix of the flawed election law that relegated Florida to a late-night joke in 2012 by signing an elections clean-up bill passed on the final day of the legislative session.

The measure, signed by Scott late Monday before he left for a trade mission to Chile, reverses several provisions implemented in 2011 by GOP lawmakers in anticipation of the 2012 presidential election.

Those changes, criticized by Democrats as an attempt to suppress votes for President Barack Obama, limited the early voting that the president’s campaign capitalized on in 2008. The 2011 law also prevented early voting on the Sunday before Election Day and prohibited voters, particularly students, from changing their voting address at the polls.

League of Women Voters of Florida President Deirdre Macnab hailed the reforms, saying “it will go a long way in repairing the damage done by the 2011 voter suppression bill.”

Continue reading "Gov signs elections law fix, reversing GOP changes and ending early primary" »

May 09, 2013

Redistricting legal battle returns to Florida Supreme Court

The Florida Legislature and the League of Women Voters squared off Thursday before the state Supreme Court as both sides continue an intense legal battle over the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that produced the Republican-crafted 2012 maps of state House and Senate districts.

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, represented in court by former Supreme Court Justice Raoul Cantero, asked the state's highest court to block a lower court from holding a full-blown trial on claims by voting groups that lawmakers, consultants and party operatives schemed to draw districts to partisan advantage in violation of the two "fair districts" amendments to the state Constitution.

"The Constitution grants exclusive jurisdiction to the Supreme Court" on all redistricting matters, Cantero told reporters outside the courthouse. "We went through this very grueling process for several weeks last year and that's it until 2020 ... It's a close question and I'm confident they'll rule in our favor."

Miami lawyer Adam Schachter, representing the League of Women Voters and other groups, said the 2010 fair district amendments changed the Florida Constitution to prevent the Legislature from drawing districts that favor or disfavor a political party or an incumbent. He said evidence already unearthed in the lower-court case, before Leon County Circuit Judge Terry Lewis, suggests the amendments were violated.

"The Florida voters passed these amendments to change the process," Schachter told the justices, "and allowing them access to the courts is the way to effectuate that change."

Internal emails on both sides of the partisan divide in redistricting show that Republicans and Democrats both privately sought to maximize their political advantages in the once-a-decade remapping of political boundaries. Republicans used private email accounts, held brainstorming sessions and set up personal "dropboxes," and a Democratic consultant wrote a 2011 email that said in part: Underlying goal is to increase the number of safe Democratic seats and the number of competitive seats."

During nearly an hour of oral arguments Thursday, the most animated justice was Charles Canady, a former Republican state legislator and member of Congress, who was openly skeptical of many of Schacter's arguments, and suggested that there has to be a finality to lawsuits challenging redistricting plans. "We can be litigating these redistricting plans over and over and over again for the next decade," Canady said.

-- Steve Bousquet

April 16, 2013

As Senate reworks elections bill, supervisors are enraged

Senate Republicans on Tuesday revised a major elections bill that addresses some voting problems that made Florida a target of national ridicule in 2012, but they rejected changes Democrats sought and added a provision -- aimed at Miami-Dade's top elections official -- that angered election supervisors.

A final vote was delayed. The bill expands early voting sites in hopes of avoiding a repeat of last year's long lines, and mandates eight early voting days for up to 12 hours each day. County election supervisors could voluntarily extend early voting to 14 days, including on the Sunday before the election.

The bill addresses the widespread problem of sloppy absentee ballots by giving absentee voters the ability to fix a problem with their ballots -- such as a missing or non-matching signature -- up to 5 p.m. on the Sunday before an election. Bowing to
growing opposition, senators also dropped a provision that would have required absentee voters to have their ballots witnessed by an adult.

The  bill prohibits paid absentee ballot solicitors from receiving more than  two ballots for people other than family members, and it prohibits people from assisting more than 10 voters at the polls -- which a Miami-Dade civil rights group, Florida New Majority, says would result in the disenfranchisement of some voters. 

A last-minute amendment to the bill gives the Secretary of State the power to place a county supervisor of election on "noncompliant status," including the loss of $2,000 in salary, for up to three years for incompetence. Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, who has been critical of Miami-Dade  Supervisor Penelope Townsley's handling of the 2012 election, sponsored  the provision. Townsley is the only supervisor among 67 who's appointed, not elected.

"It's more symbolic than anything else," Diaz de la Portilla said. "It's not about removal from office. Only the governor can do that."

Election supervisors are elected constitutional officers, like sheriffs, and the governor has the power to suspend them from office. Some supervisors were livid at Diaz de la Portilla's maneuver, which had never been heard in a committee.

"It was heavy-handed and truly a ham-fisted attempt to go after his own supervisor of elections," said Polk County Supervisor Lori Edwards, a former state House member. "It was a typical inside Tallahassee backroom deal."     

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, manager of  the bill, said he was persuaded to support the provision, recalling how former Gov. Jeb Bush had to suspend Broward County Supervisor of Elections Miriam Oliphant from office for ineptitude.

"I don't think it should get to that," Latvala sai. "This is a token kind of thing that could be used by the Secretary of State to get the attention of supervisors who are not doing the job they were elected to do."

Senate Democrats tried in vain to make early voting mandatory on the Sunday before the election; to make "any suitable location" available for early voting; and to limit future ballot questions to no more than 150 words.  The bill (HB 7013) now returns to the full House for a vote, as county election supervisors try to strip out the "noncompliant" language.

-- Steve Bousquet

March 05, 2013

Awake the State rally a sign of frustrated voters

While House representatives were voting on the Florida Election Code late Tuesday afternoon, a crowd of protestors rallied on the steps outside the old Capital building blasting a flawed 2012 election, with songs, signs and plenty of speeches.

The Tallahassee event was part of Awake the State -- Free the Vote grassroots rallies in 23 Florida communities, with appearances by four Democratic senators: Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale, Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens and Dwight Bullard of Miami. Other speakers included Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho, students and representatives of the Dream Defenders, Florida NOW, the AFL-CIO and other groups.

  "The point is to send a clear message to the Legislature that we want to see meaningful election reform during the legislative session," said Damien Filer, of Progress Florida, organizers of Awake the State. 

Continue reading "Awake the State rally a sign of frustrated voters" »