Bad elections law, but hisses undeserved
Maybe it was the Harvard program on Dealing with an Angry Public that prepared Seminole County Supervisor of Elections Michael Ertel for the Tampa crowd that hissed at him during a recent U.S. Senate hearing on election law changes. Other Republican leaders, including Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi, wouldn't come within 100 miles of the Hillsborough County Courthouse that day last month. But the 42-year-old Ertel said he "was honored" to be invited to testify, the only Republican who agreed to appear and defend the new restrictions. Florida's new elections law has cut the number of early voting days from 14 to eight, and placed new restrictions on third-party voter registration drives, which led the League of Women Voters to end its registration efforts. Across the country, similar changes have thrown up barriers to 5 million voters, mostly young, minority and low-income, who tend to register Democrat. The courtroom, to set the scene, was full of incensed Democratic activists. At the head were Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida and Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee. Both were critical of the changes.Ann McFall, the Republican supervisor of elections in Volusia, was there, too, but she's not a fan of the new law. She said the changes in early voting cost taxpayers as much as $25,000 in overtime for every early-voting site. The law also forced her to turn in a high school civics teacher who failed to submit her students' voter registration cards within 48 hours. Which left Ertel, the only Republican willing to show up and defend the law. Ertel said he felt like a referee trying to explain league rules during a pep rally. The hiss came as he defended provisional ballots — which are counted later, only after everything checks out — if you fail to carry current identification, have moved since you last voted or have requested an absentee ballot and didn't bring it with you. What made Ertel so remarkable, besides his courage in showing up, was his admission that the law is fallible and that he would like to take a red pen to it. Back home in Seminole, just north of Orlando, he has found creative solutions to its barriers, including deputizing every high school principal so that teachers can help students register to vote without fear of fines. Seminole also kept early-voting polls open the maximum hours allowed by law, one of only two Florida counties to do so. Ertel wants to have a rational discussion about the elections process, which is refreshing even if he defends some of its new restrictions. But then, supervisors of elections are wrongly blamed for laws they do not create. He said his goal is to calm the rhetoric and take the politics out of policy. You doubt that? He has restored faith to the Seminole elections office, which did not enjoy a good reputation after the 2000 election. And he has forgone legislatively proffered salary increases to remain in line with salary freezes imposed on his staff, which is funded by the county commissioners. Democrats who believe voting is a sacred right hissed at him. But in mimicking cold-hearted snakes, they denied this supervisor the respect he deserved, even as he defended some indefensible changes. Democrats should remember: A belly-crawling reptile can never stand on common ground with his opponent.
Formerly a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and Orlando Sentinel, Susan Clary is a freelance writer in Orlando. © Florida Voices.