If you follow politics or late night comics you know that the phrase “Florida elections” was a universal laugh line for 10 years. We still wince at the 2000 election psychodrama, complete with hanging chads, haranguing lawyers, Palm Beach Jews stunned ...
Don Gaetz Published 6:00 a.m. CT Oct. 28, 2017 | Updated 7:34 a.m. CT Oct. 28, 2017
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If you follow politics or late night comics you know that the phrase “Florida elections” was a universal laugh line for 10 years.
We still wince at the 2000 election psychodrama, complete with hanging chads, haranguing lawyers, Palm Beach Jews stunned to learn their votes were recorded for Pat Buchanan and dueling courts picking the president.
Older observers remember the 1994 governor’s race when Lawton Chiles robo-called three million geezers the night before the election and scared the bejesus out of them that Jeb Bush was going to take away their Social Security. Never mind that it was not only a lie but an impossible lie, since governors have nothing to do with Social Security. Walkin’ Lawton side-stepped into the Governor’s Mansion whilst denouncing with a wink and a nudge whoever made those mean ol’ phone calls. Jeb had to wait four more years to be governor.
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Our current governor paid $100 million of his own money to buy two terms – a record that may exceed the Rockefeller family’s purchase of elections – and still couldn’t get 50 percent of the vote either time.
There are hundreds of cases of Florida electoral chicanery. The files of the Florida Elections Commission and the Florida Commission on Ethics spill forth with the ones that have been investigated, and that’s the minority.
My own favorite is the 1952 US Senate Democratic primary between incumbent Claude “Red” Pepper and challenger “Gorgeous George” Smathers. Lore and facts are hard to unscramble in this famous grudge match, but here is what one newsman reported Smathers said to a rural North Florida audience:
“Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? This man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and has a sister who was a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is a documented fact that Mr. Pepper publicly matriculated at the University of Florida and that he and his brother admitted routinely engaging in heterosexual practices. Claude Pepper has never denied that before he was married he practiced celibacy all over this state.”
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Legend has it that on election night the returns were running too close for comfort for the Smathers camp. Only a few counties hadn’t turned in their tallies. A Mr. Chewning from Cross City telephoned Tallahassee to say that Dixie County was ready to report. He was met with an angry response, “Dammit, Chewning, how can you report Dixie County when we haven’t told you how many votes we need. Just stay by the phone and keep your mouth shut.”
At the right time, Dixie County duly reported a landslide for Smathers. Some precincts posted nearly a 200 percent turnout, a miracle of patriotism that inspires to this day.
Sixty-two years later the Florida Senate was considering a bill to make it easier for voters to register via a secure internet connection, a system used successfully by other states. The goal was to increase voter participation but with methods a bit more nuanced than those employed in the Smathers-Pepper election.
Supported by Democrats and Republicans and every supervisor of elections in the state, the bill was scheduled for a vote during a meeting of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. The secretary of state, Florida’s chief elections officer, was present and asked by the committee to testify. Instead, he stood and “waived in opposition.” That meant he wanted the bill to die but didn’t want to publicly testify as to why or answer any questions.
The secretary had been signaled that the Governor’s office was against the bill. His boss or his boss’ aides instructed him as to his official position on an issue that went to the heart of his constitutional duties. An otherwise nice and decent man, the appointed secretary of state naturally did the bidding of the person who hired him and could fire him. When challenged to explain his opposition, he stood flat-footed, embarrassed and uninformed.
The notion of having a political appointee in charge of elections is unusual. None of our counties do it. The local supervisor of elections in all 67 Florida counties is elected. Thirty-five states have elected secretaries of state chosen by and accountable to the people. Not Florida. Only in Florida and four other states is the chief elections official appointed by the governor, an office-seeker whose own fate is decided by the elections his appointee oversees.
In the long litany of electoral larceny in our state, sometimes Republicans were the charlatans. Most often, it was Democrats, if for no other reason than that they ran the state for generations before the first Republicans were spotted in the wild.
But it shouldn’t matter whether the governor is a Democrat, a Republican or a Whig. No governor should decide how his or her own and other elections are overseen.
It should matter a lot that the person entrusted by our Constitution to ensure the fairness and accuracy of voter registration, voting machines, voting procedures, vote counts and our elections is independent of the politicians whose names are on the ballot and directly accountable to the public.
It so happens that you and I might be able to do something about that.
Last week a proposal was filed with the state’s Constitutional Revision Commission to give the people of Florida the power to directly elect their Secretary of State. You can view it at http://www.flcrc.gov/Proposals/Commissioner/2017/0014
The commission is comprised of 37 citizens – Democrats and Republicans – who will decide whether to put popular election of the secretary of state and other proposed constitutional revisions before the voters at the November, 2018, election.
Over the next weeks the Constitutional Revision Commission will hold hearings in Tallahassee on this and other potential changes. Those discussions and debates are open to the public. You can follow them at www.flcrc.gov. Through that website, you can share your opinions with all 37 commissioners. Or you can testify in person.
But if you get involved in this political stuff, be warned: you may be branded as a shameless extrovert and God help you if you’ve been practicing nepotism with your sister-in-law.
Don Gaetz is former president of the Florida Senate and serves on the Constitution Revision Commission. He is a regular PNJ columnist. You can reach Sen. Gaetz at firstname.lastname@example.org
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