Kurt Browning's tough road

Published May 26, 2007

Kurt Browning seemed to have the ideal resume to preside over Florida's unpredictable voting system - a job that includes frequent clashes with fiercely independent local election supervisors.

A big, strapping guy with a crew cut and country-boy demeanor, Browning was a supervisor himself in Pasco County, for 26 years, starting at age 22, for goodness sakes.

At an age when most 22-year-olds are consumed with cars, beer and MTV, Browning's world was precinct tabulation and poll workers - and he was barely old enough to vote.

But now that Browning is putting all that experience to work as Gov. Charlie Crist's $120, 000-a-year elections guru, secretary of state, he's on the defensive.

It's Browning's fate to repair the strained relationship between election supervisors and the Secretary of State's Office at a time when a new voting system is coming.

Seven short years removed from the chaotic day of punch cards and hanging chad, Florida is again replacing its voting machines. This time, the state is junking touch screen machines for optical scanners that provide a paper trail, which Crist sees as a tonic for the Sarasota-inspired lack of confidence in old-fashioned vote counting.

Touch screens must be gone by July 1, 2008, to make way for the first statewide paper trail primary on Aug. 26, 2008. A few will remain for voters with disabilities.

That's not all supervisors face. Random audits of precinct totals. An earlier presidential primary that puts a bigger focus on Florida. More election-day data demanded by the state and less time to compile it all. A still-untested "ballot on demand" system for early voting that offers more convenience for voters and more work for poll workers.

All of it was tucked inside the elections bill Crist signed amid great fanfare Monday.

The bill is House Bill 537.

Yes, 537, the exact number of votes by which George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in Florida in 2000.

Then there are the looming property tax cuts that are likely to force election supervisors, and all other county employees, to cut their budgets.

Browning didn't write the bill, and he hates parts of it. But his message was simple: Stop complaining and start complying.

He's heard the talk about how he's to blame for that unpopular new law.

"It's a little unfair, but that's okay, " Browning said.

Those jittery election supervisors who peppered Browning with questions at a conference this week have been around a while.

They remember Browning as an unwavering supporter of the dependability of touch screen voting, before he went to work for Charlie Crist.

"The political environment has changed, " Browning said.

It sure has.

In the election supervisors' eyes, it's as if Browning has gone from being "one of us" to "one of them, " the bureaucrat in Tallahassee who thinks he knows everything. It comes down to this: Their relationship is different now.

At the conference in Sandestin, Browning spoke earnestly of a new partnership between the state and counties.

But he made it clear he has little patience for whining by supervisors, when a few of them can't manage to file routine post-election paperwork on time.

"I'm not going to get beaten up for it, " Browning told them.

The country boy from Pasco County will need all the diplomatic skills he can muster to keep election supervisors calm for the next 18 months and pull off the trouble-free election everybody wants.

Discussing his new job, Browning told supervisors: "I am the state's chief cultural officer. Go ahead and laugh."

They did. Then somebody blamed Browning for canceling the Florida Folk Festival because of wildfires.

He didn't. Somebody else did. But Browning took the rap and kept on going.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.