By Steve Bousquet
Gov. Rick Scott, citing "some hesitation," signed legislation Friday requiring Florida to create an online voter registration system by 2017.
Scott expressed concern about "the timing of required deliverables" that coincide with ongoing efforts to modernize the statewide voter database.
"This system has been experiencing maintenance issues, which election supervisors have rightly cited as a challenge to their duties," Scott wrote.
He also expressed concern about cybersecurity, saying added technology results in more challenges and vulnerabilities.
"Cyber attacks are on the front pages almost every day, and fraud and identification theft issues arise whenever a new avenue for information transmittal is created," Scott wrote. "While these challenges exist, I am confident that the Department (of State) and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles will act carefully and prudently in developing needed protection for citizen information."
Scott added: "We must do everything possible to encourage 100 percent participation in elections, with zero percent fraud."
The bill (SB 228), sponsored by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, is the most significant piece of legislation sponsored by a Democrat in the 2015 session to clear the governor's desk.
It requires Detzner to report to the Legislature by Jan. 1 on progress being made toward implementing the new system, which must be fully in place by October 2017. Lawmakers included $1.8 million in the bill to pay for the costs of implementation in an effort to overcome any financial opposition Scott might have had. The appropriation is subject to passage of a state budget.
Scott's decision eased the concerns of legislators, election supervisors and voting rights advocates, who feared he would veto the bill because of the persistent and vocal opposition from Scott's chief elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner.
"He did the right thing for Florida voters," said Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, in a statement.
"It is a great day for Floridians & I applaud @FLGovScott for his decision to sign this good bill!" Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said on Twitter. Corley had correctly predicted two weeks ago that Scott would approve the bill.
Across the country, 21 states have implemented online voter registration with five others, including Florida, taking steps to do so.
Duval County Supervisor of Elections Jerry Holland, president of the state association of election supervisors, said Detzner called him Friday to let him know of the decision. Holland said Detzner told him, "I think this is a good thing," which Holland said he found "hard to comprehend" in light of Detzner's fierce opposition to the idea in three legislative committee hearings.
At one Senate hearing critical of the online registration bill, Detzner cited "forces of evil" bent on disrupting the next major election in Florida, for president in 2016.
"Many times it looked like it had hit a dead end," Holland said Friday. "We're excited to see Florida be recognized as one of the states that's ahead of the curve in elections and election technology."
Three times in the past few weeks, the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections had sought a face-to-face meeting with Scott to ease his concerns, but supervisors said the governor's office did not respond to their letters.
Detzner issued a statement Friday that said that he "respects the decision of the governor and the Legislature on this bill... The Department of State will commit 110 percent of its effort to ensure it is implemented correctly and safeguarded against security risks."
Detzner told reporters last week that Scott did not seek his guidance or input on the bill, and a spokeswoman for his office said Friday that had not changed.
Detzner's repeated opposition to an online voter registration form annoyed some lawmakers and likely played a role in the Senate's refusal to confirm him in the 2015 regular session. As a result, Scott was required to reappoint Detzner and he must be confirmed in the 2016 session or else he would have to resign.
The bill passed the House, 109-9, and the Senate, 37-3. All 12 legislators who opposed the bill are Republicans.
(c)2015 Miami Herald