Despite opposition from the governor's top elections official, legislation that would allow Floridians to register to vote online was sent to the Senate floor Thursday.
Meanwhile, the House delayed a floor vote on a similar measure because of a question about $1.8 million that would be needed to fund creation of the new high-tech application.
The Senate Appropriations Committee, in a 10-4 vote, backed a measure (SB 228) that would require the state Division of Elections to develop an online voter-registration application by Oct. 1, 2017, a year later than proposed earlier.
"I admit I have some concerns about this bill, and they're not concerns about the bill itself," said Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat who is sponsoring the bill. "It's about whether or not the agency is actually going to do what we tell them to do, or find excuses to not do it again. And that's concerns me."
Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who told the committee he knows what a "train wreck is and they're not pretty," expressed unease about having a deadline to implement the program before a plan is in place.
"I'm concerned about having the date hanging over my head, because it forces a realignment of the people and the resources, the taxpayers' resources, of what this job is," Detzner said.
Detzner said his agency will be busy next year overseeing what is expected to be the largest election in state history and is already undertaking a two-year rewrite of the statewide voter-registration system. Detzner added that his office would also be under deadline pressure to coordinate the required online registration changes with 67 county supervisors of election and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
More important, Detzner warned, the system would have to be built to ward off cyber-attacks from "forces of evil."
"The people that would like to affect and disrupt elections are out there," Detzner said.
Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, offered to work with Detzner on an amendment to address any technological matters.
Ring, a former Yahoo executive, said he understands Detzner's concerns and the need to have time to test the system before fully implemented, pointing to the expensive problems with the 2013 rollout of the state's unemployment website as well as problems this year with the educational-testing platform used with the Florida Standards Assessments.
"We have the recent history to know what can happen when we let agencies drive technology programs and aren't properly prepared to manage outside vendors," Ring said.
Clemens noted that some of the 20 states that have implemented similar applications were able to do so in four months.
"We're giving him two-and-a-half years," Clemens told the committee.
Several senators said that without the deadline the change may never happen and questioned why Detzner's agency hasn't already been working on online registration.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, asked how much influence the governor's office has had on Detzner's opposition to the bill.
Detzner said he has only advised Gov. Rick Scott about his concerns.
"I have never been told what my position is," Detzner said. "I've been asked what my position is. And I've expressed to the governor directly, to the staff, and continue to report, my feelings about this issue."
Ronald Labasky of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections told the committee the system can be implemented "very securely" based upon programs in place in other states.
"The process is no different than what we currently do, and you currently do, as voters," Labasky said. "All the processes that would be involved with the current system would be utilized in ensuring that before you're registered to vote you are in fact who you are and where you are located."
The House, meanwhile, delayed a final vote Thursday on a similar measure (HB 7143), as staff clarifies a $1.8 million general-revenue allocation added to the bill a day earlier to fund the new electronic system.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said the measure is still alive. However, Crisafulli added the House may simply take up the Senate bill, which added $1.8 million --- from the Federal Grants Trust Fund --- on Thursday.