The urge to purge 

Hillsborough’s Supervisor of Elections race is a microcosm of the national battle over voters’ rights.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department halted a Florida voter purge after it was discovered that the list of 2,625 alleged non-citizens Gov. Rick Scott sent to Supervisor of Elections offices around the state was riddled with inaccuracies.

Now Scott has sent supervisors a second list, a new batch of 207 names allegedly ineligible to vote, with Election Day only about a month away. It’s one more indication of how politically fraught the SOE position can be. And in the first presidential election after Florida’s legislature passed a controversial voting bill, the race between Craig Latimer and Rich Glorioso to be Hillsborough’s new SOE has become a flashpoint in the state and national debate over voters’ rights, and an unusually charged battle for what some say should be a nonpartisan office.

Craig Latimer is chief of staff to current Hillsborough County SOE Earl Lennard. Latimer was among the first to notice that something was amiss in the initial voter purge. The state sent him a list of 72 suspect Hillsborough voters, but when he sent letters to those individuals inviting them to come by the office with proper identification if there’d been any mistakes, he got an unwelcome surprise.

“Immediately people began showing us their birth certificates,” he recounted recently. “We said, ‘This isn’t right.’”

Latimer and Lennard stopped the project, a step followed by almost every other supervisor of elections office when they discovered similar inaccuracies in Scott’s list. The U.S. Dept. of Justice halted the proceedings altogether on May 31.

The urge to purge goes back at least a year, to the Florida Legislature’s passage of HB 1355, the elections reform bill. Among other things, the bill reduced the number of days of early voting and radically shortened the time afforded to third-party groups to turn in new registrations.

Like the majority of his fellow Republicans in Tallahassee, Plant City House member Glorioso voted for that legislation — legislation that Latimer calls a “solution to a problem that didn’t exist.”

On the campaign trail, Rich Glorioso acknowledges that the Lennard/Latimer regime has cleaned up the SOE office tremendously from the mess they inherited four years ago. But he insists that there are still issues that need to be corrected, “and I know I can fix that.”

That “mess” is what is otherwise known as The Buddy Johnson Era. Like Glorioso, Johnson was a Plant City Republican who had previously served in the Legislature. He was named by then Governor Jeb Bush to replace Pam Iorio in 2003 when she left to run for mayor, and was elected for the first time in 2004 against Democrat Rob McKenna, even though there were already problems in the SOE’s office, including lost votes and slow tallies.

But Johnson’s reign of errors was just beginning. His office was beset by numerous problems, including illegally overspending his budget and using thousands of dollars in taxpayer funds for voter education materials that used his name and image during his 2008 re-election campaign. But after several years of investigations, the FBI announced in 2011 that he was not guilty of any federal crimes.

Latimer had just retired after a stellar career working his way up the ladder at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office when he was selected by the late Phyllis Busansky to be her chief of staff after she defeated Johnson in his bid for re-election in 2008. And he stayed on the job after her sudden and unexpected death of a heart attack in 2009.

But Glorioso accuses the Lennard/Latimer team of being too reactive to events, not proactive, such as doing more outreach to the community.

“If I’m in charge of outreach, I’ve gotta own that process, and have the authority to put a team together and say this is how we’re going to do outreach,” says Glorioso, who rose to the rank of colonel in the U.S. Air Force after 27 years of service. “You have to continuously improve your process, or you’re falling behind.”

Glorioso says that the current office is failing to communicate in particular with blacks and Latinos. Michelle Patty, an activist in the black community, concurs, saying, “It has not been sufficient. A lot of people didn’t even realize it was Election Day [during the August primary]. There is no outreach in the community as before.”

Then again, Patty might not be the most unbiased source, as Buddy Johnson paid her more than $16,000 for voter outreach back in 2008.

In any event, Latimer disputes the charge, saying that representatives from the SOE’s office have participated in over 300 education-registration events in the county since the beginning of June.

Going deeper into the “reactive, not proactive” narrative, Glorioso cites the fact that 166 absentee ballots mailed out in New Tampa this summer omitted the Democratic House District 63 race between Mark Danish and Z.J. Haveez, and that the office didn’t know about it until informed by Danish. He also says that multiple registrations were listed at One Buc Place, the home of the Tampa Bay Bucs, a problem brought to the Hillsborough office’s attention by a group known as Tampa Vote Fair.


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