The newly installed official who oversees elections in the critical swing state of Florida resigned on Thursday after a newspaper obtained photos of him dressed in blackface at a 2005 Halloween party.
The official, Michael Ertel, a Republican who had served as Florida’s secretary of state for only two weeks and two days, confirmed to The Tallahassee Democrat that he was the person in the photographs of a white man in a T-shirt with “Katrina Victim” written on it.
Along with blackface makeup, Mr. Ertel is wearing red lipstick, earrings and a New Orleans Saints bandanna in the photos. They were taken two months after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, a city that is 60 percent black.
The photos obtained by the Tallahassee Democrat were shown to the Governor’s Office on Thursday morning. Hours later it issued a statement: “The governor accepted Secretary Ertel’s resignation.” https://t.co/quleb5ZMGX
— Tallahassee Democrat (@TDOnline) January 24, 2019
The newspaper said it showed the photographs to Mr. Ertel last week, and sent them on Thursday to Gov. Ron DeSantis’s office, which quickly said it had accepted Mr. Ertel’s resignation.
“I think it’s unfortunate,” Mr. DeSantis said at a news conference on Thursday. “I think he regrets that whole thing 14, 15 years ago, but at the same time I want people to be able to lead, and not have any of these things swirling around them. So I felt it was best just to move on.”
When shown the photographs, Mr. Ertel told The Democrat, “There’s nothing I can say.”
The photographs evoked an ugly history of white people blackening their faces to mock African-Americans in minstrel shows and movies. That same nerve was struck by a photo widely shared on social media that showed Kentucky high school students dressed all in black and wearing black paint on their bodies and faces as they yelled at a black player from an opposing basketball team.
The school, Covington Catholic, is under a microscope after a confrontation between a group of its students and a Native American elder in Washington over the weekend.
And at the University of Oklahoma, students involved in filming and posting a video showing a woman applying blackface were expelled this week.
Mr. Ertel, 49, had been the supervisor of elections for Seminole County since February 2005 when Mr. DeSantis, a Republican, appointed him secretary of state in December. Before resigning, he had testified before a state legislative committee on Thursday about election lawsuits.
A few days after President Trump was inaugurated, Mr. Ertel publicly disputed Mr. Trump’s claims of rampant voter fraud.
“To be clear: voter fraud is likely one of the least-committed felonies in America,” he wrote on Twitter, using an account that has since been deactivated. “Barring system-wide collusion, it is simply not the case that ‘millions voted illegally.’”
But Mr. Ertel also acknowledged that there were flaws in the system that could be manipulated, and that he was committed to “non-arduous provisions” that would allow the most citizens to cast their vote.
As part of his duties as secretary of state, Mr. Ertel was in charge of the state’s effort to restore voting rights to 1.4 million ex-felons, which Florida voters approved in November.
He had received many awards for his work on increasing voter registration, including the Martin Luther King Jr. Good Citizenship Award given by the city of Longwood in Seminole County.
Florida, with 29 electoral votes, has been an epicenter in the national struggle for accurate vote tallying since the 2000 presidential election, in part because its statewide races are often decided by very close margins. In November, it took almost two weeks for the state to determine the outcome of its two biggest contests, for senator and governor.
Eventually, Senator Bill Nelson, the Democratic incumbent, conceded to his Republican opponent, Gov. Rick Scott, and Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for governor, conceded to Mr. DeSantis. Mr. Scott, whose lead in preliminary tallies on election night shrank steadily as early and absentee ballots were counted, claimed there was “rampant fraud” in the process before emerging victorious.
Mr. DeSantis had trailed Mr. Gillum in the polls for much of the campaign, after telling Fox News in August that Florida voters should not “monkey this up” by voting for Mr. Gillum, who is African-American.
Compounding the uproar over that comment, a white supremacist group placed racist robocalls to voters, in which a man claiming to be Mr. Gillum spoke in the exaggerated accent of a minstrel performer while monkeys screamed in the background. Both candidates’ campaigns denounced the calls.
“I’m not calling Mr. DeSantis a racist,” Mr. Gillum said in a debate in October. “I’m simply saying the racists believe he’s a racist.”
Those clashes may prove to be a harbinger for the 2020 elections, when the Florida voter rolls will include the newly enfranchised ex-felons. Mr. Trump, who campaigned for Mr. DeSantis, won Florida by one percentage point in 2016, and the state may well decide whether he wins a second term.
Mr. Ertel, who said he was homeless for a short time as a teenager, became an elections supervisor after a career in public relations that included work for Florida’s tourism industry. He served in the Army, doing public affairs work for the service. He is married with two adult children.
“Part of what makes me such a dedicated defender of our privilege of voting,” Mr. Ertel wrote on his website, “is knowing that throughout the trials of my life, there’s been one constant earthly asset always with me: the power of my one vote.
“It is the freedom of that gift by our forefathers that drives my passion to protect it for you, your family, and our shared future.”