Florida’s elections chief works to avoid becoming household name in 2020 vote count

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Laurel Lee has an IQ fitting of the challenge ahead of her — ensure that the presidential election in Florida runs smoothly and doesn’t become a punchline yet again for the nation’s comedians.

As secretary of state, Lee serves as the state’s top elections official, working with independent supervisors of elections for each of Florida’s 67 counties.

It’s a position that can be overlooked, but if something goes wrong in a high-stakes election, the secretary of state can quickly become a household name. In 2000, then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris emerged as one of the key players in the Bush v. Gore recount drama.

Lee’s credentials include a law degree from the University of Florida, a stint as a judge in Hillsborough County and membership in Mensa, an organization open to people who score at the 98th percentile or above on IQ tests.

The words “Florida” and “election” conjure up images of chaos: hanging chad (the plural of chad is chad), butterfly ballots and litigation-filled recounts.

Lee, 46, said she is doing everything she can to keep Florida out of the headlines this year. She meets regularly with federal and state law enforcement on cybersecurity issues and oversaw a risk assessment for all 67 counties (the results are secret). Planning exercises have covered hypothetical election disasters from a coronavirus outbreak in a county elections office to a hacking attack. Lee’s office now has a dedicated cybersecurity unit.

“I am very optimistic that we have prepared and have done the things necessary to have a smooth election this year,” Lee said in an interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Four years ago, Russian hackers accessed the voter registration systems of two counties. That breach was revealed to the public only last year.

Blackface scandal landed her in the role

A twist of Florida fate landed Lee in her role.

Gov. Ron DeSantis' first pick for the position, former Seminole County Elections Supervisor Mike Ertel, resigned after serving less than a month when pictures surfaced of him in blackface. The Halloween photos from 2005 showed Ertel wearing blackface, lipstick, a New Orleans Saints bandanna as a headscarf and a T-shirt with “Katrina Victim” written on it.

Ertel’s blackface scandal left DeSantis scrambling for a replacement. He turned to Lee, who is married to state Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican lawmaker with an independent streak.

Tom Lee has served 18 years in the Florida Senate over two separate stints, including as Senate president from 2004-2006. He’s a throwback to an era when social media mudslinging didn’t exist and is known to lament how politics have become hyper-partisan. He’s retiring from the Senate in November.

Laurel Lee didn’t have experience in elections administration before she was named to her post. That’s not uncommon in Florida. Her predecessor, Ken Detzner, was a lobbyist for the beer industry.

But Tom Lee said his wife has a firm understanding of the law and a reputation for fairness that she earned while serving as a judge.

“Anybody who thinks the secretary of state’s office is occupied by a partisan hack today is badly mistaken,” Lee said. “My wife is a person of principle, character and integrity. She calls balls and strikes. She knows the difference between right and wrong. She was raised in an environment that you execute your mission with integrity.”

DeSantis, a close ally of President Donald Trump, appointed Laurel Lee to the $146,000-a-year position.

Things have changed since 2000

Things have changed from the time when Katherine Harris played a starring role in the 2000 recount. The position is no longer elected, and the secretary of state has less leeway to make binding decisions that could affect the outcome of an election.

In 2000, Harris served simultaneously as Florida’s secretary of state and as co-chairwoman of the state’s Bush-Cheney campaign committee. Bush won the election in Florida by only 537 votes out of almost 6 million votes vast.

“The expectations of nonpartianship have escalated since then,” said Susan MacManus, a retired political scientist and longtime Florida political analyst. “There is a lot more informational training, guidance and uniformity.”

The daughter of an Air Force general, Laurel Lee attended the University of Florida, where she was in the same sorority as Attorney General Ashley Moody. The two are still friends. Lee, Moody and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried participated in Florida Blue Key, an honor society seen as a springboard in Florida politics.

While attending the University of Florida, Lee worked as a model to help pay her bills. After law school, she clerked for Moody’s father, U.S.. District Judge James S. Moody Jr.

As a lawyer, she worked for Carlton Fields in Tampa, specializing in antitrust and business litigation. She then served as an assistant federal defender and an assistant federal prosecutor.

Gov. Rick Scott appointed her as a circuit judge in 2013, and she won election a year later.

DeSantis vetted Lee for lieutenant governor and considered her for two other agency head jobs in state government, her husband said.

When Ertel resigned in January 2019, Lee said he told the governor’s chief of staff Shane Strum that his wife would be a good fit for the job, and Lee was named to the post shortly thereafter.

“I knew they needed to move fast because until they did, the story would continue to be about blackface instead of who is the new secretary of state,” Lee said.

Critics raise questions of voter suppression

Laurel Lee has faced criticism from Democrats and activists in the weeks leading up to Election Day 2020. The state’s voter registration website crashed on the last day to sign up to vote in the presidential election. Lee extended the deadline to 7 p.m. the next day, but voting rights groups wanted more time.

Then her office made an unexpected late move to push off the voter rolls ex-felons who had outstanding debts. Another late-arriving memo advised election officials they needed to guard 24-hour mail ballot drop boxes, which drew complaints of voter suppression.

Lee said she’s following the law and responding to questions that her office has received. Fewer than 100 names will be flagged before Election Day for removal from the voting rolls, and those people will be entitled to due process, she said.

Andrea Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority, said she thinks Florida hasn’t done enough to fix its faulty voter registration website. Her group was one of several voting rights organizations that sued the state seeking a longer extension of the deadline.

“Time and time again, we flag these issues,” Mercado said. "They haven’t been resolved. ... To solve a problem, there has to be a willingness to solve the problem. It is hard to not see it as another voter suppression tactic.”

State officials blamed “unprecedented” demand and misconfigured servers as the reasons for the website faltering.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker declined to extend the deadline, but he had harsh words for the state’s leaders. He estimated that based on past trends more than 20,000 additional people could have registered to vote if the website hadn’t failed.

“In so ruling, this Court notes that every man who has stepped foot on the Moon launched from the Kennedy Space Center, in Florida. Yet, Florida has failed to figure out how to run an election properly — a task simpler than rocket science,” the judge wrote.

Election supervisors praise her work

Lee has done a good job of working with election supervisors in Florida’s 67 counties, said Bill Cowles, Orange County’s longtime elections chief.

“She has tried to put the best foot forward in working with the supervisors. ... We are all trying to do what is best for Florida and make sure Florida looks good,” he said.

What keeps Lee up at night when it comes to the 2020 presidential election?

“I am concerned about the threat of misinformation and disinformation,” Lee said. “That continues to be a pervasive problem. We know that foreign actors are attempting to disrupt the election process. We are working very hard to communicate with voters just how critical it is to be on the lookout and seek information from trusted sources.”

Skyler Swisher can be reached at sswisher@sunsentinel.com, 561-243-6634 or @SkylerSwisher

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