Gov. Ron DeSantis suspends Palm Beach County elections supervisor Susan Bucher
WEST PALM BEACH -- Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday suspended Palm Beach County Elections Supervisor Susan Bucher, citing her office's nationally watched failure to report the county's election results on time in November as its aging vote-tabulating machinery was overwhelmed by recounts in three statewide races and a state House race.
In place of Bucher, who is expected to contest her removal, DeSantis appointed West Palm Beach attorney Wendy Sartory Link, a member of several boards including the Economic Council of Palm Beach County and a the board of governors for the state university system.
"An election that happened a week after Halloween, you ended up not having the recount done until after Christmas. Palm Beach County stands alone in that level of ineptitude. They’ve truly been the Keystone Cops of elections administration," said DeSantis at an afternoon news conference outside the county's historic 1916 courthouse.
Link, introduced by DeSantis at the event, said she will not run for election in 2020 and will try "to ensure that Palm Beach County is well-prepared for every election, that everyone in our county has the assurance and sense of security that their vote will count."
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Link will be tested soon when several municipalities hold elections in March.
Bucher could not be reached for comment on Friday. She is a former Democratic state House member who has been elected three times to the nonpartisan election chief's job, winning her last race with 76.7 percent of the vote in 2016.
Although the supervisor's job is nonpartisan in Palm Beach County, the Republican governor's action inflamed partisan passions. Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, a Palm Beach County resident, accused DeSantis of "gross overreach and a politically motivated move to consolidate power and obstruct the will of the people."
Palm Beach County Tax Collector Anne Gannon and a few other Democrats attended DeSantis' news conference and loudly voiced their disapproval.
"This is all about the next presidential election. They’re putting all these political hacks in these seats. Susan did an excellent job," said Gannon, a friend of Bucher who served with her in the state House.
Bucher is the third elected official suspended by DeSantis since he took office Jan. 8. Last week, the new governor removed Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel, a Democrat, over his handling of the Parkland massacre and Okaloosa County School Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson, a Republican, over her handling of reported abuse of special-needs students in her district.
Gannon said Bucher told her she plans to fight her removal.
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"She’s pretty upset that the governor couldn’t pick up the phone and call her personally," said Gannon. She said Bucher told her that representatives of the state Division of Elections were on hand to observe Palm Beach County's counting and recounting after the Nov. 6 election, and Bucher is confident they did not find any wrongdoing.
The Florida constitution allows a governor to remove an elected official for “malfeasance, misfeasance, neglect of duty, drunkenness, incompetence, permanent inability to perform official duties, or commission of a felony.” The constitution gives the Florida Senate final say on whether to remove or reinstate a suspended official.
DeSantis said he acted based on the recommendation of Secretary of State Mike Ertel, who was recently appointed by DeSantis after serving as elections supervisor in Seminole County. A six-page executive order signed by DeSantis accuses Bucher of "misfeasance, incompetence, neglect of duty -- or all of these."
Bucher's suspension is effective immediately.
Palm Beach County, which gained international fame in 2000 for its "butterfly ballot" that confused some voters in the tight presidential election, found itself in the spotlight again in November as Florida's races for U.S. Senate, governor and commissioner of agriculture and a state House District 89 contest were all closer than 0.5 percent, triggering recounts under state law.
As recounts commenced across the state, Bucher said the county's tabulating machines -- bought before she took office in 2009 -- were unable to count the ballots in time to meet state-mandated deadlines.
"We didn't anticipate that we'd have to run 100 percent of our ballots through these old machines," Bucher told reporters eight days after the election. "We anticipated we would have a pretty quiet midterm election as we used to. I guess that's not the new norm. We never anticipated that these machines would have to run 24/7 and perform four recounts."
Bucher's office was the only one of the state's 67 counties to use machines made by Sequoia Voting Systems, a maligned firm that was bought out by Dominion Voting Systems in 2010. Bucher's defenders noted that, despite concerns about the equipment, the state Division of Elections certified it and never rescinded its certification.
That changed this week when Ertel, the new secretary of state, decertified Palm Beach County's tabulating equipment for any county with more than 250,000 voters, effective June 1.
Bucher was critical of the equipment when she ran for the job in 2008. But while other Florida counties made technology upgrades, Bucher did not ask Palm Beach County commissioners to approve money for new equipment for her office until last May. Bucher's request for $11.1 million was approved -- but not in time for the November elections.
In his three-page letter to DeSantis recommending Bucher's suspension, Ertel said the equipment woes are ultimately Bucher's responsibility.
"While the equipment she refused to replace is certainly at the core of many of the missed deadlines, the fault is not with the equipment. Supervisor Bucher had years of foreknowledge that her county needed to buy new equipment, yet she chose not to," Ertel's letter says.
Ertel's letter faults Bucher for missing recount deadlines and other issues. He noted Bucher's decision, criticized by Circuit Judge Krista Marx, to allow damaged ballots that could not be read by tabulating machines to be copied by staff rather than in the presence of the county's elections canvassing board.
Ertel also accused Bucher of "stubborn secrecy," noting media reports that Bucher at one point threatened to have camera operators and newspaper reporters arrested if they recorded canvassing board members examining ballots.
Bucher, a Democratic member of the state House for eight years before winning the election chief's job in 2008, has long had a reputation as a blunt-spoken politician. In 2004, Republicans called for her to be disciplined when she said special interests had donated campaign money to them to pass a health care measure.
Bucher has also rejected any efforts to limit or restrict opportunities for voters get to the polls, opting instead to keep polls open as long as legally possible and ensuring there are polling sites in poor, minority and working class communities, which traditionally vote Democratic.
As the November general election results showed tight races for Senate, governor and agriculture commisisoner, Bucher and former Broward County Elections Supervisor Brenda Snipes came under fire as their large, heavily Democratic counties were slow to report results.
Then-Gov. Rick Scott, who ended up winning his U.S. Senate race by 0.12 percent, singled out the two counties on Nov. 8, two nights after polls closed.
"Every Floridian should be concerned there may be rampant fraud happening in Palm Beach and Broward Counties," said Scott, who never offered proof of fraud. President Donald Trump echoed those criticisms in three tweets over the next week.
Scott later suspended Snipes after Snipes had announced her intent to resign effective Jan. 4. Snipes then sought to rescind her resignation and contest Scott's suspension. DeSantis on Friday announced he was accepting Snipes' original resignation, which he said would end the legal fight over her suspension.