Florida Secretary of State Michael Ertel resigned on Thursday after photos emerged of him posing as a Hurricane Katrina victim in blackface at a 2005 Halloween party.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis selected Ertel as secretary of state before taking office in January. According to the Tallahassee Democrat, which published the pictures on Thursday, Ertel previously served as supervisor of elections for Seminole County beginning in February 2005—meaning the photos were taken during his time in office. Ironically, Ertel reportedly has a commendable record of expanding the franchise: The City of Longwood awarded him the Martin Luther King, Jr. award for registering voters and helped to make voting in Seminole County easier and more secure. He also used his office to help high school students register to vote even as former Gov. Rick Scott tried to restrict student voting. He criticized Scott’s notorious voter purges and rejected Donald Trump’s claim that millions of people voted illegally in the 2016 election.
In light of this track record, many Florida Democrats were pleased when DeSantis tapped Ertel as the state’s chief elections officer. For good reason: The Florida Secretary of State is tasked with enforcing Amendment 4, an initiative that restores voting rights to rehabilitated felons. DeSantis had urged counties not to register former felons until the legislature passed enabling legislation. But Ertel directed his office to accept their applications, noting, correctly, that the amendment is self-executing.
The photos that emerged on Thursday, however, are so horrifically racist, so vicious and bigoted, that Ertel likely had no choice but to step down. Ertel told the Tallahassee Democrat that he was, indeed, the individual in the pictures, wearing blackface, red lipstick, earrings, false breasts, a New Orleans Saints bandana, and a t-shirt that read “Katrina Victim.” (The photos were taken shortly after the hurricane had devastated New Orleans.) DeSantis quickly accepted his resignation.
Now the governor will appoint a new secretary of state to oversee Amendment 4’s execution. With luck, that official will share Ertel’s support for voting rights but lack his racist baggage. Unfortunately, DeSantis has a sordid history of association with racists—a fact his opponent, Andrew Gillum, highlighted during the campaign. And if Ertel’s successor shares DeSantis’ view of voting rights, he or she will work feverishly to suppress the suffrage of racial minorities.
In other words, a few weeks into DeSantis’ tenure, Gillum’s warning has already proved prescient.