FERNANDINA BEACH WEATHER

Florida Elections Commission gearing up for looming challenges

By John Haughey
The Center Square
August 24, 2021

Gov. Ron DeSantis has appointed three members to the Florida Elections Commission (FEC), including a chair, meaning the elections watchdog now has the required quorum and can meet for the first time since May.

The three are the first appointments DeSantis has made to the nine-member commission since assuming office in January 2019. The panel is now manned by four appointees whose terms have expired.

Because the FEC did not have a five-person quorum, its Aug. 17 hearings were rescheduled for Aug. 31.

The FEC was created in 1951 to ensure transparency in elections statewide. It’s the agency that candidates file reports with to document all contributions and expenditures made by campaigns and committees.

The FEC has the statutory responsibility to enforce the state’s election laws and the authority to levy fines for violations of Florida election laws. A commission within the Florida Department of Legal Affairs, its budget and operations are independent of Attorney General Ashley Moody’s Office.

The FEC is managing the state’s defense of its election laws, including Florida’s decision not to appeal U.S. Northern District of Florida Judge Allen Winsor’s July 1 injunction preventing Senate Bill 1890 from being enacted.

In granting the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Florida’s motion for a temporary injunction against SB 1890, Winsor’s order prohibits the FEC from enforcing a $3,000 contribution cap on ballot measure donations.

The FEC has requested a 90-day extension in filing its appeal because, it maintains, it has hired a new outside law firm and needs time to answer a the motion for judgment.

“The FEC still lacks a quorum to conduct business, as it has since late May,” the ACLU said in its response.

The FEC is also dealing with the 19th Amendment challenge to Florida’s 2019 felon voting law now before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and it will be left with the residue from the Miami-Dade Circuit Court case involving a 2020 “ghost candidate” dark money scheme that may have influenced several senate districts during the November 2020 election.

On the FEC’s canceled Aug. 17 agenda was review of three alleged campaign violations lodged against Rep. Anika Omphroy, D-Lauderdale Lakes, for failing to file campaign finance reports, and violations allegedly committed by the Coral Springs Fraternal Order of Police Lodge.

Under state statute, no more than five FEC commissioners can be from the same political party. Of the commission’s nine members, the governor appoints eight from six names provided to him each by the state Senate President, state House Speaker and minority chamber leaders.

The eight must be confirmed by the Senate but the governor has sole discretion in appointing the FEC chair. DeSantis has named Jacksonville Port Authority Chief of Regulatory Compliance Nicholas Primrose as FEC Chair.

A former general counsel for DeSantis’ and former Gov. Rick Scott’s administrations, Primrose will join the four commissioners when FEC convenes Aug. 31.

The other remaining FEC members are attorneys appointed during the Scott administration: Vice Chair Joni Poitier; Jason Allen; Kymberlee Smith; and J. Martin Hayes.

The governor’s other nominees who await confirmation are Republicans who served on the FEC under Scott – former state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who served as Florida Lieutenant Governor from 2014-19, and retired Miami police detective Marva Preston.

Preston was among three nominees forwarded by Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. Philip Twogood, a state agency staffer, and Allen were the other two.

Senate Democrats’ recommendations include Tampa attorney Cheryl Forchilli, former prosecutor Devin Collier and Cecile Scoon, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

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