[Image courtesy of tampabay]
It’s safe to say Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner has had a tough year.
For more most of the first part of 2015, he was engaged in a running battle with county election officials about online voter registration (he was opposed, they supported it) – and now, he is on the defensive again after a state audit revealed serious issues with the Florida Voter Registration System (FVRS), the statewide voter database. The Tampa Bay Times‘ Steve Bousquet has more:
Under fire once again for lapses in oversight of Florida’s voter database and lax communication, Gov. Rick Scott’s top elections official says he’ll “over-communicate” in the future.
For embattled Secretary of State Ken Detzner, it’s an all-too-familiar refrain as he tries to improve his strained relationships with county election supervisors, who depend on a reliable database as they tabulate votes in Florida elections.
In a conference call with the executive committee of the supervisors association Thursday, Detzner spoke from a prepared script and said the addition of new database hardware is ahead of schedule and that he would soon make site visits to counties.
“I recognize the need to over-communicate our planning at the department,” Detzner told them, according to a three-page script of his remarks.
There will likely be lots to communicate given the tenor of the audit report, which has county officials’ eyebrows and voices raised as election preparations continue:
Tensions are escalating because the 2016 presidential election is drawing closer and any new voting problems in Florida would revive the state’s reputation for voting irregularities and spiral into a national controversy.
State auditors recently issued seven specific warning signs, saying Detzner’s agency needs to tighten management and security of the state voter database, train workers faster, improve disaster planning, and reduce the high number of temporary system breakdowns.
The database, which stores information on Florida’s 12 million voters, is the backbone of election management in Florida.
In his talking points, Detzner called the recent audit “routine” and “for internal use at the agency.” He claimed that every audit finding was previously reported to supervisors, a claim contradicted by [Pasco County election supervisor Brian] Corley, who called the findings “troubling” and said it was “yet another case where information does not flow to all parties of the collective team.”
It doesn’t help that Detzner’s office also recently sent county officials a memo regarding 2016 preparations that some of them feel takes too much credit for their passage:
In a separate memo to county supervisors, Detzner urged them to improve election planning, add more voting sites and buy new equipment to be prepared for the 2016 election.
Noting that Florida’s presidential preference primary is next March, eight months away, Detzner cited “a number of tools to help you plan for the expected high voter turnout in 2016” thanks to reforms adopted by the Legislature and signed into law by Scott.
“There’s lots of rhetoric,” said a skeptical Lori Edwards, supervisor of elections in Polk County. “He credits the governor with 2013 reforms resulting in better early voting sites and polling places, tools for re-precincting, voting methods and voting systems. That wouldn’t make it through the fact-checker.”
That’s another sore point to supervisors, who say they spent years lobbying Republican politicians in Tallahassee for more flexibility in early voting sites and times, including more weekend hours, before they agreed in 2013.
That frustration has county supervisors skeptical and distrustful of many of the state’s plans going forward:
Supervisors are not familiar with all of the hardware changes. The level of distrust is so high that Palm Beach County Supervisor Susan Bucher made a formal public records request for the information on hardware but the result was “severely redacted,” due to security concerns, and as Okaloosa Supervisor Paul Lux recalled, virtually worthless .
“We are the users of the system,” Lux said. “I just don’t see what the reluctance is. We’re all supposed to be on the same team here.”
The problem, of course, is that Detzner burned virtually all of his credibility with county officials in his unsuccessful efforts to stop OVR in Florida:
Detzner has not been able to restore faith with supervisors after he initially endorsed their top legislative priority of an online voter registration system before he reversed himself and tried to sabotage it in the 2015 legislative session.
Even though 20 other states created online registration as an alternative to voters without problems, Detzner’s Division of Elections warned the Legislature of “potential risks and challenges” that could “disrupt and delay” improvements to two databases the state uses to track voters.
Detzner could not convince his boss, Scott, to veto the bill, and the elections chief now faces a Jan. 1, 2016, deadline to report to lawmakers on the progress in implementing the online system by October 2017. He also awaits a fresh round of confirmation hearings in the Senate, which refused to confirm him last spring.
No state can afford to be ill-prepared for a major election year, but memories of Florida’s painful experiences in 2000 and after has everyone on edge. Detzner’s recent briefing did garner some praise as a “positive step” from Pasco’s Corley, who was a fierce critic during the OVR debate, but it would appear that many of his colleagues aren’t yet convinced and are withholding judgment. If the state cannot regain the trust of county election offices, it has the potential to be a long, painful election year in the Sunshine State.
It is 225 days until Florida’s presidential primary – and 464 days until the general election. Given the current environment, Florida will likely need just about every single one of those days to get ready.