One particularly heated debate during the current election is the battle over Amendments 5 and 6, which, if passed, would create stricter rules for legislators to follow while redrawing state districts.
Protect Your Vote, a political action committee founded in order to campaign against the amendments, argues that 5 and 6 would make redistricting a long and costly process and would result in a decrease in minority representation in Congress and the Florida legislature.
But a look at the leadership behind Protect Your Vote raises questions about the organization’s motives.
The president of Protect Your Vote is Kurt Browning, Florida’s former secretary of state. Appointed to the position in 2006, he resigned this past April (.pdf), citing provisions in the Deferred Retirement Option Program.
A law passed by the legislature in 2009 “narrowed a loophole that allowed highly paid state workers to retire and return to their old jobs and draw two salaries,” in the words of the St. Pete Times. The law forced Browning to retire before it took effect on July 1, 2010 — denying him a chance to oversee the 2010 elections.
Before becoming secretary of state, Browning served as supervisor of elections in Pasco County. He was first elected in 1980 at the age of 22.
Browning was well known as an advocate of electronic touch-screen voting machines, and Pasco was one of 15 Florida counties using the machines. Those machines became steeped in controversy in 2006 because of 18,000 undervotes in a Sarasota congressional election.
Browning changed his stance on voting machines after his appointment to the Florida Department of State, when Gov. Charlie Crist insisted on using paper ballots as a way to audit votes.
The secretary of state came under fire in 2008 when he enforced Florida’s Voter Registration Verification Law — which was nicknamed “No Match, No Vote.” The law, first approved by the Florida legislature in 2005, requires new voters to submit an identifying number, usually a driver’s license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number, so the state can confirm an applicant’s identity.
If a match could not be found, the applicant was considered ineligible to vote.
The state was releasing lists of unmatched names as late as a week before the Nov. 4, 2008 election. ”African-Americans and Hispanics combined account for 55 percent of would-be voters on the latest list [released Oct. 28, 2008], which includes 6,194 Democrats and 1,440 Republicans,” reported the Times. The law is still in effect today.
Among Protect Your Vote’s other leaders are Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, the organization’s honorary national chair.
According to Sunshine State News, “critics of Brown’s stance say she is fighting the ballot measures solely to keep the large majority she enjoys in her district in order to keep her seat safe from challengers.”
Protect Your Vote regularly spotlights Brown as a way to highlight the fact that the group is bipartisan. But for an organization that claims to not take sides, it has overwhelming support from Republicans.
Of the 15 elected officials on the African-American and Hispanic steering committees, three are Democrats (Brown included) and the rest are Republicans.
Previously, The Florida Independent noted that the Republican Party of Florida has contributed $750,000 to Protect Your Vote. According to an updated contribution list (.pdf) on the group’s website, the Republican Party has given another $450,000, bringing its total now to $1.2 million — two thirds of the group’s total fundraising haul to date.
The listed address for Protect Your Vote is 610 South Blvd. in Tampa — the office of Robert Watkins & Company, an accounting firm. Nancy Watkins, Robert’s wife, specializes in political campaign operations.
According to a 2009 article in the Florida Trend,
Watkins serves as the treasurer on dozens of state and federal candidates’ campaigns, political action committees, leadership PACs and various 527 groups. In any given election cycle, Robert Watkins & Co. will handle the finances of more than 100 political entities.
Watkins says she only works the GOP side of the ledger, sticking with those candidates who subscribe to her own ideals of “limited government and more freedom.”
In this election cycle, Watkins is also working with Citizens for Lower Taxes and a Stronger Economy, Inc., the “No on 4″ group opposing Amendment 4.
In a YouTube clip posted by Protect Your Vote yesterday, Browning says the amendments would add layers of complexity and unmeetable standards to the redistricting process. He says if 5 and 6 become part of the state constitution and one of the standards is not met, the new redistricting plan would go into litigation.
“The last thing that Florida needs is another election season filled with litigation,” he says. “I believe it’s just not good for Florida.”