Commentary: Taking a stand for fair early voting in Florida

The Miami HeraldAugust 27, 2012 

Leave it to the Conch Republic to bring a little heat to the fray.

Harry L. Sawyer Jr. — fifth-generation Conch, former Monroe County Sheriff’s detective and for the last 24 years the Key West-based supervisor of elections — has told fellow Republicans Gov. Rick Scott and his secretary of state that he’s not playing the disenfranchisement game.

He’s not going along with Scott’s scheme to keep Florida Democrats from voting in the upcoming presidential election by curtailing early voting hours.

He’ll offer 12 days of early voting that includes two Saturdays and will run for eight hours each day at five sites from Marathon to Key West.

Scott wants only eight days, despite a federal court ruling saying such a move could hamper African-American turnout.

“There’s an element here of discrimination that has been alleged by the people . . . and I agree with that,” Sawyer told me in a refreshingly candid conversation. “It’s [affecting] mostly working people, Hispanics and African Americans. They just can’t take off from their job any time they want to and stand in a long line and vote. They have family to take care of as well. A lot of factors why they need early voting.”

In a conference call Tuesday, Secretary of State Ken Detzner tried to strong-arm five supervisors of elections into agreeing with Scott’s plan.

Sawyer wouldn’t go for it — and Monroe County ended up the lone holdout.

It’s about time a fellow Republican stood up to Scott, who together with his subservient Republican-dominated Legislature, are giving the party of Abraham Lincoln a terrible face in Florida by restricting voter registration, purging voter rolls when fraud is practically non-existent or minimal, and going way out of their way to cut back voting days.

But here come the Florida Keys, those clever boosters who took an act of symbolic secession from the United States in 1982 and turned it into the greatest tourism campaign ever, to put a damper on the governor’s plan to hand over Florida to the Republicans in the presidential election.

Although Key West is largely Democratic, Monroe County is populated by a majority of Republicans: 18,701, to the Democrats’ 16,712; the rest are independent or registered to other parties. Those wise Republicans overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama in 2008.

“We deal with diversity all the time in the Conch Republic,” says Sawyer, who’s retiring and moving to Nassau County to be near family. “In a lot of our elections here, we have to appeal to everybody. It makes for interesting campaigns.”

Are Conch Republicans upset with his falling out of step with the party line?

“No, the local party in Monroe County is fine with me,” Sawyer said. “They can’t come out as supporting what I’m doing, but deep down, I know they do. Around here, we don’t look down at people and keep them from doing what they want to do.”

Sawyer is hoping the court will clear his early-voting plan.

“If we’re ordered by the courts to conduct an election in a certain manner we have no choice but to do it, but otherwise, I’m not going to change my mind.”

You tell them, Harry.

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