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Sunday, June 5, 2011

Colliers election chief says, no, to Scott's election bill


by Eric Staats

Florida’s roll out of a controversial new elections law hit a speed bump in Collier County in the days after Gov. Rick Scott signed it.

As directives to put the law into effect started coming down from Tallahassee within hours of Scott signing it May 19, a surprised Collier Supervisor of Elections Jennifer Edwards wrote to Secretary of State Kurt Browning saying she would not put the law into effect in Collier until it gets cleared by the U.S. Department of Justice.

Collier is one of five Florida counties -- along with Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough and Monroe -- that are required under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to get federal pre-approval, or preclearance, for election law changes. The same provision also requires the county to get pre-approval of ballots and polling place changes, Edwards said.

“It (getting pre-approval) is just instinctive for us,” Edwards said Wednesday. “I was just doing my job.”

The other four counties are taking the same step, Secretary of State spokesman Chris Cate said.

The Secretary of State’s Office is preparing to submit the law “soon” to the Justice Department for clearance before it takes effect in the five counties, Cate said.

“It’s always been the plan,” Cate said.

Among other things, the 158-page law puts new restrictions on third-party groups that register voters, cuts back on the number of early-voting days and makes it more difficult to report a change of address at a polling place on Election Day.

Backers of the law say it is meant to attack voter fraud, but critics say the law unfairly targets minority voters.

Edwards, who has been Collier’s election supervisor for 11 years, said election laws usually go into effect at some future date after the bill is signed.

“What happened this time is different,” Edwards said.

Most of the provisions Scott signed into law May 19 went into effect immediately upon signing.

In an email Wednesday, Cate wrote that Browning mentioned the preclearance requirement when he briefed the press after the bill signing.

The Secretary of State’s Office memo and the set of directives about implementing the law, emailed to all 67 counties within hours of Scott’s signing the law, make no mention of the preclearance requirement.

Cate said the counties have dealt with preclearance requirements for years and don’t need a reminder from the state.

Edwards’ chief deputy Tim Durham emailed back, in reply to the May 19 email, that he believed the new elections law needed federal approval before it could be lawfully implemented.

The next day, as further rules came down from Tallahassee about tracking third-party voter registrations, Edwards mailed a copy of her letter to Browning, she said.

She said Wednesday she was surprised by the pace with which the law was being implemented and wanted to put on the record her intention of complying with the preclearance requirement.

On May 24, Assistant General Counsel Maria Matthews, in the Secretary of State’s Office, emailed elections supervisors in the five covered counties to advise them to not implement the law until it got federal pre-approval.

Edwards responded in an email to Browning: “I am glad we are all in agreement.”

Collier typically builds a 60-day pre-approval period into their election schedules cover the review time by the Justice Department.

Edwards said she expects the dust to settle before the next election in Collier, an Everglades City election in November.

Collier County Republican Party Chairman Frank Schwerin said Edwards is right to hold off on implementing the GOP-backed elections law.

He said the Voting Rights Act preclearance requirement is a relic from an earlier time in Collier County and maybe should be changed. Until it is, though, Edwards is right to enforce it, Schwerin said.

“We have a Republican who as supervisor of elections is following the law,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that.”

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