Elected secretary of state gets backing

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A House panel approved a proposed constitutional amendment Monday that could shift power in Florida's executive branch.

Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, wants to convert the office of secretary of state into an elected Cabinet position, eliminating the governor's power to appoint Florida's highest elections official.

The move would undo a change approved by voters in 1998 that strengthened the office of the governor, which shares power in many areas with three statewide elected officials who make up the Florida Cabinet.

The House Oversight, Transparency & Administration Subcommittee voted unanimously to approve Harrell's proposal (HJR 811) to place the issue on the November 2018 ballot. The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee approved a Senate version (SJR 882) last week.

Sandra Mortham, a former elected secretary of state, told the House panel that the "consolidation of power" in the executive branch has led to conflicts of interest in the secretary of state's office.

"It has become more difficult for the secretary because clearly, they have a chain of command to have to deal with issues," Mortham said, testifying in favor of Harrell's proposal.

Mortham served as secretary of state from 1995 to 1999, leaving office after she lost a Republican primary to Katherine Harris, who became a controversial figure nationally because of her role in the 2000 presidential recount.

"Frankly, there are a lot of elections issues that I believe should be made predicated on the office and the people," said Mortham, rather than deference to the governor's will.

The changes approved by voters in 1998 took effect with the 2002 elections and reduced the size of the Cabinet. The positions of secretary of state and education commissioner became appointed, and the Cabinet posts of comptroller and treasurer were eliminated. A new Cabinet position, chief financial officer, was created, while the attorney general and agriculture commissioner remained.

Since its move to an appointed position, the secretary of state's office has been at the center of high-profile court cases concerning election laws. For example, a federal court late last year struck down a law that allowed county canvassing boards to reject vote-by-mail ballots deemed to bear invalid signatures without notifying voters, calling it a form of voter disenfranchisement.

Harrell's proposal still must get through two committees to reach the House floor, while the Senate measure, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, awaits a hearing in the Senate Rules Committee.

To get on the 2018 ballot, the proposal would have to be approved by three-fifths of both legislative chambers and would ultimately need approval from 60 percent of voters.

Harrell's proposal is not the first time GOP lawmakers have attempted to expand the Cabinet to include more direct influence from voters. A proposal to reinstate the education commissioner as an elected part of the Cabinet surfaced during the 2016 legislative session, though it did not pass.

Backers of both proposals have cited the benefits of having an odd number of members making Cabinet decisions. The governor, attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner can have tie votes.

While Harrell said she wants an odd number, executive gridlock was a secondary concern. She said her main objective is addressing a "lack of public confidence" in the state's election regime. She pointed to a 2012 election where voting-machine problems led to calls for a recount by then-U.S. Rep. Allen West, who eventually lost to Jupiter Democrat Patrick Murphy.

"What's most important to me is that the secretary of state is directly elected," Harrell told The News Service of Florida. "That would go a long way towards restoring people's faith in their democracy."

A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Ken Detzner declined to respond directly to the possibility of structural changes to his office. It is the general policy of state agencies to remain neutral on such legislation.

"Secretary Detzner is focused on serving the citizens of Florida and ensuring the continued success of Department of State policies and programs, including the upcoming implementation of online voter registration in October," department communications director Meredith Beatrice said Monday afternoon.