Harrell bill would hold election supervisors accountable for errors

PORT ST LUCIE, Fla. - State lawmakers mostly have focused on early voting reform so far in election proposals, but Rep. Gayle Harrell plans to peg her own pitch on the vote-counting woes in St. Lucie County.

Harrell, a Stuart Republican representing part of St. Lucie County, will talk with Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner on Thursday about how to curb errors similar to St. Lucie's.

Harrell said her proposal could go a few directions. It could let the state require pre-election reports detailing how supervisors have prepared; standardize early voting practices and the numbers of workers and equipment; give supervisors a report card on their performance; or other accountability measures. Her suggestions likely would end up in a bigger elections bill targeting Florida's 2012 election troubles in the March-through-May legislative session.

But it's complicated giving the state more authority over supervisors, Harrell said, because they're constitutionally elected officers. Harrell said she'll research how the state can get more involved alongside Detzner and Rep. Jim Boyd, a Bradenton Republican and chairman of the House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee.

"(Supervisors of elections) are elected by the people under the constitution," Harrell said. "They have certain rights and responsibilities, but I think at the end of the day, the state needs to hold them accountable to those responsibilities."

In the 2012 cycle, the St. Lucie elections office struggled with faulty memory cards that held vote counts. Workers also double counted or didn't count ballots and didn't initially account for a box of 306 ballots. The issues spurred on a partial recount and full recount of early ballots, and the canvassing board missed its deadline to report updated results to the state by seconds. Interested parties in U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy's victory over former Congressman Allen West in District 18 scrutinized the process.

Reached Friday, St. Lucie County Supervisor of Elections Gertrude Walker said an additional pre-election report could offer the state good perspective.

"(The state) would be aware of what our challenges and what our constraints are," Walker said. "I think that would be good information."

After the election, Walker has heard from her share of Tallahassee officials.

Detzner met with Walker at her office last month. His department will file a report in early February on Walker and other supervisor offices that struggled this election. Division of Elections workers also audited the November early voting recount. The subsequent report described technology issues, staff inexperience and inadequate procedures.

Walker also will speak to the Senate Committee on Ethics and Elections on Monday about election problems. She'll be joined by nine other supervisors. Several of the officials will share best practices. Walker and the supervisors will address the House Ethics & Elections Subcommittee on Tuesday.

The secretary of state has limited authority over supervisors, but the top elections officials can make recommendations to higher-ups. Gov. Jeb Bush, for instance, suspended Broward County supervisor Miriam Oliphant in 2003 after a secretary of state report claimed she mishandled elections. The Florida Senate also can vote to reinstate a supervisor.

Sen. Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican covering part of St. Lucie and the other Treasure Coast counties, said more state oversight could be a plus.

"I want to respect the constitutional authority of local supervisors of elections," Negron said. "But when we have cases of clear error and incompetence, the state may want to see if we can develop some additional tools to correct that before we end up with the debacle we had in St. Lucie County, for example."

Rep. Larry Lee Jr., the sole Democrat in the Treasure Coast delegation, said lawmakers should restore early voting days and add locations, limit wordy constitutional amendments, ensure voting technology is up to date and that elections offices have enough manpower. Walker and many supervisors made similar suggestions.

Lee said he hasn't spoken with Harrell about which changes she'll pursue, but initially he said the state doesn't need to adjust how supervisors run their offices.

"Right now, I don't think the state needs to come in and mandate that supervisors operate in a particular way," Lee said.

Harrell's idea to give letter grades to supervisors isn't brand new. Gov. Rick Scott tried grading local election officials in April. Supervisors across the state — include the Treasure Coast's three elections officials — slammed Scott's rankings, calling them flawed.

Walker said if grading is required, supervisors statewide should have a say in the grading criteria.

In the early voting debate, rival Republican and Democratic proposals clash. Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat, has proposed returning to 14 days of early voting. Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, and Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami Beach, will push

similar bills.

Joyner also hopes to expand eligible early voting sites. Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, also joined the elections conversation by pushing for a cap on constitutional amendments and proposing that everyone 18 years old and older be automatically registered to vote.

The 2011 Republican bill by Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla of Miami limited early voting to eight days, but added six hours of voting a day. Diaz de la Portilla has flipped by filing a bill for the upcoming session to increase early voting to nine days and keep polls open 14 hours a day.

Like Harrell suggests, Diaz de la Portilla also calls for a report from supervisors three months before the election.

"If those reports are made public, and people realize that the supervisor is not doing their job ahead of time, I think that might put extensive pressure on a supervisor to do their job," Harrell said.

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