In November 2018, two nonprofit Florida civic groups filed a federal lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Tallahassee seeking an emergency order barring Governor Rick Scott from certifying the results of the U.S. Senate race, in which he himself was a candidate, and preventing him from exercising any control or influence over recount procedures that would normally be exercised by the governor in an election. The emergency legal papers were filed on behalf of Common Cause Florida and the League of Women Voters of Florida, organizations that together represent over 43,000 Florida voters. The plaintiffs were represented in the matter by Protect Democracy and the law firm Robbins Russell.
At the time of filing, Counsel for Protect Democracy Larry Schwartztol said, “Governor Scott has used the powers of his office to advantage himself and disadvantage his opponent. Most egregiously, he has used his official platform to accuse election officials in counties he expects to lose of criminal activity, despite having no evidence to support that claim, and he has threatened to deploy state law enforcement agents to investigate officials in those counties. With a recount underway, millions of Florida voters will have the effectiveness of their ballot determined by a process that Governor Scott has already interfered with. Just as no person should be a judge in their own cause, Governor Scott should not get to misuse his authority to tilt an election in which he’s competing.”
The lawsuit cited several instances of Gov. Scott’s interference with his own election contest, including a Nov. 8, 2018 press conference held by Gov. Scott’s U.S. Senate campaign, Scott for Florida, at the governor’s official state residence—a taxpayer-funded venue not typically used for partisan political activity. At that press conference, Scott — who, as governor, was Florida’s chief law enforcement officer and head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) — called on FDLE to investigate “unethical liberals” in heavily Democratic Broward and Palm Beach counties for “rampant fraud.” He reprised his call for a criminal investigation into the vote count on Fox’s Hannity show, where he claimed without evidence that “it’s clear we’ve got some left-wing activists, got some Democratic D.C. lawyers, down here for one purpose–to steal the election,” and added that he himself would “make sure we win this.” The next day, a Scott for Florida spokesperson said, again without evidence, that local vote-counting operations involved “voter fraud” and that the governor’s campaign would not “let” it happen.
While government officials have presided over elections in which they were candidates in the past, the extreme bias in favor of his own campaign demonstrated by Gov. Scott drew immediate criticism. One local paper said his actions “underscored the lack of a clear dividing line between his dual roles as candidate for higher office and his current job as a governor” and noted that it was “not the first time that Scott has been accused of politicizing the state law enforcement apparatus.” This blurring of roles and use of official power to influence the electoral process has grave consequences for the constitutional rights of voters.
“Florida voters deserve confidence in a neutral, non-political process for the recount,” said Anjenys Gonzalez-Eilert, Executive Director of Common Cause Florida. Patricia Brigham, President of the League of Women Voters of Florida, added, “There is inherent danger in allowing a candidate to preside over his own election, especially when the candidate is openly biased. Our goal is to protect the will of Florida’s voters, whatever the outcome may be.”
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