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    A Times Editorial

    State of chaos

    Katherine Harris' messy resignation as secretary of state just adds to the long list of election embarrassments connected to her office.


    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 4, 2002


    Katherine Harris is the first secretary of state in Florida history who could credibly claim ignorance of the state's election laws as an excuse for fouling up her own election plans.

    Ensuring the integrity of Florida's elections is the secretary of state's most important responsibility, but Harris never saw it that way. Even when she was seeking the office four years ago, she made it obvious that she was more interested in culture and trade, tangential aspects of the job that required her to do little more than travel, smile and attend innumerable receptions, tasks she performed with an avidity that would have exhausted lesser public officials.

    In normal times, Florida and the nation might easily have survived such abject neglect of the secretary of state's paramount duties. However, little has been normal in Florida during the past two election cycles. No one needs a rehash of Harris' pivotal role in the deadlocked 2000 presidential election, but this much is clear in retrospect: Harris' consistent rulings on behalf of George W. Bush's campaign were based on factors other than her thorough analysis of Florida election law.

    Things are just as chaotic this time around, although the stakes mercifully are lower. The leadership of the free world wasn't affected by the Division of Elections' foulup of filing fees that caused more than 100 candidates' paperwork to be declared invalid at the last minute. Harris, typically, was nowhere to be found during that most crucial week in the election process. When her staff grudgingly released her schedule, it was full of more travels and receptions, including a Washington fundraiser for her congressional race.

    It turns out that one of the election laws Harris neglected was the requirement that she submit a letter of resignation prior to seeking federal office. As a result, she was forced to relinquish the secretary of state's post immediately. In a letter to Gov. Jeb Bush, she said her resignation took effect July 15, the day she qualified to run for Congress.

    After all Florida has been through, the mistake didn't seem all that consequential, but Harris' panicked, incoherent attempt to explain how it happened was truly startling. Her aides whisked her away like an invalid Thursday once things began to degenerate.

    Legal experts are scrambling to determine whether Harris' official decisions since July 15 have been rendered invalid. It would be a shame if candidates who have tried to abide by Florida's election laws were inconvenienced one last time by Harris' incompetence. In truth, long-suffering Elections Division chief Clay Roberts was the de facto secretary of state long before Harris started referring to herself by that title, so Harris' messy departure should be judged irrelevant to the workings of our fall elections. Jim Smith, who served Florida well as secretary of state and attorney general, accepted the governor's appointment to serve as Harris' replacement until the position is eliminated in January. The credibility he brings to the job has never been needed more.

    Meanwhile, Harris is free to devote her full attention to winning the Sarasota-based congressional seat her Republican friends created for her. Her handlers consider the district safer than Fort Knox, but Harris knows a thing or two about how to botch an election.

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