Reporting Tim Kephart
MARATHON (CBSMiami) – Governor Rick Scott wants every county to reduce early voting days from 12 to eight and the only thing standing in his way is Monroe County Supervisor of Elections Harry Sawyer, who is refusing to play ball. Today, the Governor threatened to remove Sawyer from office.
Friday, CBS4 was first to tell you about a conference call in which, Sawyer claimed, the Secretary of State, Ken Detzner, tried to make deals to get him to change his mind.
Everything started late Thursday night when the District Court for the District of Columbia said state officials could not restrict the number of early voting days in all counties covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Section 5 requires any election changes to be cleared by either federal officials or a federal court. The states or counties covered by Section 5 all have a history of discriminating against blacks, American Indians, Asian-Americans, Alaskan Natives, or Hispanics.
The Republican-led legislature passed, and Governor Rick Scott signed a law last year cutting the number of early voting days in half.
Specifically, the three-judge panel in DC said the restriction of early voting days would “make it materially more difficult for some minority voters to cast a ballot.” But, the judges said if all 5 counties agreed to the restriction, it would be allowed to pass.
That led to a conference call from Secretary of State Ken Detzner and the supervisors of elections for the five counties covered under the Voting Rights Act: Collier, Hardee, Hendry, Hillsborough, and Monroe.
During the conference call, Secretary Detzner asked if the five counties would go along with the restricted early voting hours as prescribed by the Florida legislature. Three of the counties agreed to restrict the hours, while another agreed to go along with the majority.
But Sawyer refused saying he didn’t believe it was in the best interest of the voters in Monroe County. At that point, Detzner began trying to make a deal with Sawyer.
“Would you (Sawyer) agree to it (the pre-clearance) for the general election; and then we will revisit the issue after the general election,” Sawyer said Detzner told him.
Sawyer again refused.
“The conference call was probably one of the most interesting phone calls I think I’ve ever participated in as far as a conference call with the Division of Elections and the Secretary of State’s Office,” Sawyer said.
“What they asked us to do is all of us agree to the 92 hours rather than the 15 days prior to the election and go along with that together,” Sawyer said. “And that way, we show solidarity with the other supervisors rather than the state of Florida and we could show the country we had a consensus here in Florida.”
During the call, Detzner admitted the restriction of early voting days would cost every county more money, according to Sawyer.
“One of the other counties wanted to know if this was any gonna increase the expense of conducting elections, and the Secretary said it would, which we already knew and they’d be happy to come down and talk to their comissioners and their county managers and explain to them why the increase in election in a time when people were struggling to pay their taxes and talking about increasing the cost of elections,” Sawyer said. “When it got to me, I told them I couldn’t agree with this. It’s something I feel is discriminatory. I feel it affects minorities by taking the hours and adding them onto the week before the election.
That was the first time a state official has admitted costs would rise under the restricted access to early voting.
At this point, there were some attempts by the Secretary of State to strike some sort of a deal with Sawyer to insure the early voting days reduced.
“He (Detzner) asked me if I would go along with them for this election and after the general election, they would address this again and go from there,” Sawyer said. “My answer was I’ve been in this business a long time and going along with them and waiting until after the general election, this issue will never come up again and we’re not even sure it can.”
The conference call ended without a resolution meaning unless Sawyer changes his mind, early voting will not be restricted to fewer days in Monroe County, which is covered by the Voting Rights Act.
But Tuesday, Governor Rick Scott has gone a step further and said that he is willing to “take all necessary and appropriate action to ensure that the law are faithfully executed, that supervisors are fulfilling their duties, and that the voters of this state have free and fair elections,” according to CBS4 news partner the Miami Herald.
Sawyer said Friday that he felt the call from Secretary Detzner was “inappropriate.”
“I was probably a little shocked, a little apprehensive about what they were asking us to do,” Sawyer said. “I couldn’t believe they were asking us to do. I couldn’t believe they were asking us to go along with something that was totally political and not addressing the real issue. That was my opinion of the call and basically what I expressed to the secretary is that I couldn’t go along with this and I didn’t feel right.”
Accusations have flown since Florida and several other states began passing laws cutting back on early voting that it unfairly targets minorities and other groups. Historically, early voting tends to skew Democratic while absentee ballots tend to skew Republican.
Sawyer is a former Monroe County Deputy Sheriff and self-identifies as a Republican. He’s also set to retire after the November election, which had been announced prior to the conference call Friday.
“I’m a Republican. I have always been a Republican,” Sawyer told the Herald Tuesday. “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.”
Tuesday, state Senator Arthenia Joyner, chair of the Florida Legislative Black Caucus issued a statement on the Governor’s “implied threat” to remove Sawyer from his job that read in part:
“Republican Governor Rick Scott’s actions and implied threat to remove the Monroe County Supervisor of Elections – who he considers an obstacle to his voter suppression goals – are a slap in the face to all people who believe in free and fair elections. And he continues to govern as if the state is his very own Florida Inc., and he’s the CEO,” Joyner said.