Susan Bucher had been keeping a low profile since she was suspended as Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections by GOP Governor Ron DeSantis earlier this month, but on Monday afternoon she resigned, saying that she didn’t believe she would receive a fair hearing by a state Senate committee with “the governor’s lawyers as the prosecutors.”
The Florida Constitution says that after the governor suspends a public official, the official can contest that suspension by going before a trial at the Florida Senate , where lawmakers would either vote to reinstate or remove her from office. Bucher had been conferring with her attorney in recent days before announcing that she would not put up a fight.
“There should be minimal standards for removal of elected officials by a governor so that political agendas are not the only reason (for dismissal),” she wrote in a statement. “Where is the established threshold that allows a governor to circumvent the will of the voters?” she asked.
Senate President Bill Galvano said he took “strong exception” to the suggestion that Bucher could not receive a fair hearing in the Senate.
“The Senate’s constitutional responsibility to judge the merits of an executive suspension is an important feature of the checks and balances that allow for the separation of powers under our Constitution,” he said. “I have and will continue to make every effort to ensure fair, unbiased due process for all involved with this important constitutional responsibility of the Florida Senate.”
Her decision is an about face from last week, when she defiantly told dozens of supporters at a rally held for her outside of her former office in West Palm Beach that “I’m not ready to give up now,” adding, “Today, I stand before you willing to fight for democracy and justice. Are you with me?”
Her supporters agree with her that DeSantis’ decision to remove her reeks of politics.
“We believe it’s rolling down from Washington,” says Anne Gannon, the Palm Beach County Tax Collector. “They’re trying to ensure that Susan is not in office during the 2020 election.”
Republicans scoffed at the suggestion.
“The governor suspended Palm Beach Supervisor Susan Bucher not only because of incompetence, but also because she willfully violated the law for political purposes,” Joe Gruters, Republican Party of Florida Chairman, told the Phoenix.
At the heart of the case against Bucher was her performance during the 2018 election, where Palm Beach was the only jurisdiction in the state that failed to meet a 10-day machine recount deadline for four races in the county – the statewide races for governor, U.S. Senator, agriculture commissioner and a separate Florida House race. She blamed aging equipment for the delay.
Former Florida Secretary of State Mike Ertel didn’t buy that argument. He wrote Gov. DeSantis a letter recommending Bucher’s suspension, saying that “after years of refusing to upgrade their system – when adequate funding was made available,” Bucher continued to use outdated equipment.
Bucher’s compliant about the voting equipment was also disputed by officials with Dominion Voting Systems, the owner of the Sequoia voting system that the county had used for over a decade.
The reason the machines were breaking down, Dominion Voting System’s VP of Government Affairs Kay Stimson told the Palm Beach Post, was that they were overheating because they were running at four times the volume they would be expected to handle.
Last summer, the Palm Beach County Commission set aside $11 million to purchase new voting equipment. But Bucher delayed buying the equipment over concerns that it wouldn’t comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (The Phoenix reached out to three different Palm Beach County Commissioners for comment. None responded back).
The move to suspend Bucher came in a flurry of decisive moves DeSantis made during his first 10 days on the job that wowed supporters, who said it demonstrated a no-nonsense public official who was delivering on a “drain the swamp” campaign promise.
DeSantis has also suspended Broward County Police Chief Scott Israel (a Democrat) and Okaloosa County School Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson (a Republican). Neither of those suspensions created as much uproar as Bucher’s removal. She spent a decade as supervisor of elections in Palm Beach, and served as a state representative before that for eight years. (Israel is pushing back hard against his suspension, and has created a legal defense fund to help back his efforts; Jackson says she will opt for a trial in the Florida Senate in a bid to get her job back).
“This is a direct power grab and a politically motivated move by Governor Ron DeSantis that undermines our democratic process and sets a dangerous precedent,” Palm Beach County U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel said about Bucher’s removal from office.
“I think it’s a gross overreach and an abuse of power,” says Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo.
“I don’t see the justification for removing an elected official,” adds Anne Fonfa, another Bucher supporter who runs the Annie Appleseed Project, a nonprofit that works on alternative cancer therapies.
The charge of incompetence was “bunk,” wrote the editorial page of Bucher’s hometown newspaper, the Palm Beach Post. “She doesn’t deserve this blatantly partisan bum’s rush from a fledgling governor.”
“Gov. DeSantis overreached in removing this popularly elected official from office, absent a thorough investigation,” added the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s editorial page.
Some supporters acknowledge the problems that her office had in last November’s recount, but insist that one bad election was not a strong enough argument to throw her out of office.
However, Palm Beach Republicans say that 2018 was just the latest set of miscues in office.
“We’ve been dealing with problems coming out of her office for a decade,” says Michael Barnett, the head of the Palm Beach County Republican Party and a key supporter of President (and part time Palm Beach resident) Donald Trump.
There have, indeed, been problems on her watch.
In 2010, the final results in the razor-tight gubernatorial election between Rick Scott and Alex Sink were delayed because Palm Beach County was the last in the state to return its final numbers. Bucher attributed the delay to the county’s large size, and the fact that it did not use modems to send precinct numbers to Tallahassee. That prompted former Secretary of State Sandy Mortham to crack that county officials “might consider updating their technology.”
In 2012, a batch of absentee ballots omitted a heading for several judicial retention races, and election workers had to reproduce thousands of ballots by hand.
Republicans also have criticized Bucher for being the only elections supervisor in the state last year who rejected Department of Homeland Security-sponsored servers that are used to detect and monitor hacking.
“Election issues. Snafus. Problems with the printing of the ballots. Problems with returns being sent to the state,” says Palm Beach Republican Party chair Barnett, adding that in November he called Bucher’s office several times to inquire why the county was the only one in the state not submitting early voting numbers to Tallahassee. “It was always the same answer: ‘Oh, it’s a glitch with the state. Call the state. It’s the state’s problem. Even though 66 other counties didn’t have any problems in forwarding their numbers to the Secretary of State’s office.”
Florida election law calls for all counties to report early voting and vote-by-mail tallies within 30 minutes after polls close, but Palm Beach and Broward counties missed that deadline. Delray Beach Republican Mike Caruso won his House District 89 seat by just 32 votes in a recount in Palm Beach County in November.
“Having experienced a recount and seeing how Supervisor of Elections Bucher handled it, I was glad to see the governor take the action that he did,” he said after attending a committee meeting in Tallahassee last week. “She failed to execute, and demonstrated a total lack of transparency.”
Barnett said he traveled directly to Tallahassee to inform DeSantis about why he thought Bucher should be removed.
Galvano last week named former state Rep. Dudley Goodlette to serve as a “Special Master” in all three suspensions.
Northwest Florida GOP Congressman Matt Gaetz predicted in a tweet last week that Senate Democrats would prefer not to be in a position to have to defend Bucher.
“Worst kept secret in FL- Republicans would LOVE Scott Israel & Susan Bucher to challenge their suspensions,” he tweeted. ”Long & frequent hearings provide a chance to show FL how badly they failed. Makes for a very tough vote for FL Senate Dems.”
Worst kept secret in FL – Republicans would LOVE Scott Israel & Susan Bucher to challenge their suspensions. Long & frequent hearings provide a chance to show FL how badly they failed. Makes for a very tough vote for FL Senate Dems. #BringIt #OpenGaetz #sayfie cc: @BillGalvano
— Matt Gaetz (@mattgaetz) January 22, 2019
Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano had said that state senators should not comment about the “merits or substance” of any suspension. Two Democratic senators the Phoenix spoke with last week were effusive in their support for Bucher, but added they needed more information to assess her chances of survival in a Senate trial. And they were reluctant to discuss how strongly the Democrats should fight for her.
“I think the case will come forward and they’ll vote on the merits,” predicted Florida Democratic Party chair Rizzo last week.
But that case won’t go forward now.
“I think we should go to the mat for her,” Susan Smith, the head of the Florida Democratic Progressive Caucus said last week before Bucher announced her resignation. “Susan Bucher was upfront and honest about her office’s capabilities. Expecting people to make do without the resources they need is indicative of the Trump administration’s behavior during the shutdown.”
University of South Florida St. Petersburg Emeritus professor of government Darryl Paulson said the real issue was whether Bucher is guilty of malfeasance to the degree that it required her removal.
He didn’t see it that way.
“I find the grounds for removal are tenuous at best,” Paulson said, “making it difficult grounds for removing a duly elected public official.”
Rizzo said on Tuesday that Bucher was the victim of a partisan attack by the governor.
“It was voters who elected Bucher to her position and it is voters who should have decided whether she stayed in office or not,” she said.
Bucher herself raised doubts last week about how fair a shake she’d get if she were to go before the Republican-controlled Florida Senate. At the rally on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, she described the process as a “partisan stacked Senate (which) needs to be reviewed.”
“Something just doesn’t sound right that the prosecutor can pick his jury and impinge somebody’s reputation and circumvent the will of the voters and direct the outcome of due process through his leadership in the Legislature,” she said.
In her statement, Bucher says she will consider her options for 2020, which could include running again for what will be an open seat. That’s because the woman DeSantis picked to replace Bucher as Palm Beach Supervisor of Elections, Wendy Link, said that she will not run for the seat next year.