You may not know her now, but if something goes awry in the 2020 presidential election in Florida, Laurel M. Lee may become a household name.
Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed her as Florida’s secretary of state in late January. She replaced Mike Ertel, who resigned after a controversy erupted when pictures of him in blackface as a “Hurricane Katrina victim” at 2005 Halloween party emerged shortly after his appointment.
Lee, who is married to state Sen. Tom Lee, a Hillsborough County Republican, leads the Department of State. Its duties include overseeing Florida’s election system. But it also is the state’s lead agency for cultural, arts, historic and library programs. It handles the collection and archiving of state records. And it administers the system for registering businesses that operate in the state.
A former Hillsborough County circuit judge, Lee brings a wealth of judicial and legal experience to her job. In addition to serving as a circuit court judge, she is a former federal prosecutor, a former federal public defender and worked in private law practice.
In her initial confirmation hearing before the Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee on Tuesday, Lee said her legal and judicial background will be an asset in her new role.
“In each of the positions, I was required to set aside my own personal or political beliefs to act fairly and impartially to treat all citizens equally and fairly and to uphold the law. The same is required of the secretary of state,” said Lee, who is a registered Republican. “My professional life, and especially my judicial service, demonstrates that I can and will do this.”
Lee said her top priority is to have a “fair, accurate, orderly” election next year when a presidential campaign will lead the ballot. Florida had a close but relatively controversy-free presidential election in 2016. But memories still linger from 2000 when Florida became the center of the political universe in the Bush v. Gore election.
On another election issue, Lee said her agency is awaiting clarification on several issues raised by the passage of Amendment 4, which was aimed at restoring voting rights to felons that have served their sentences. She said local elections supervisors have raised three key issues including how to define crimes, like murder and sexual offenses, that would prevent the rights restoration and how to determine whether a felon has completed his or her full sentence.
Lee also said she wants to emphasize the cultural and historical aspects of her department. Under questioning from the Senate panel, she said she supports restoring the state funding for cultural, historic and arts programs that was slashed in this year’s budget to $2.6 million, down from $25 million in the prior year.
Another priority will be upgrading the system that allows corporations to register and file their annual reports, Lee said.
The Senate committee unanimously endorsed Lee’s confirmation. The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee will next review her appointment, before her confirmation faces a vote by the full Senate.