By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
State lawmakers could be considering new restrictions for how people can return completed absentee ballots soon.
Late last year, voting rights advocates and some local election officials spoke out against a directive from Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s office prohibiting the use of absentee ballot drop-off sites during elections.
Well, that controversial directive might soon become law—thanks a bill introduced in the Florida Legislature by an influential lawmaker.
At the urging of state Sen. Jack Latvala, the Senate will take up voting law changes that include preventing counties from using satellite locations where voters can drop off absentee ballots.
The proposal is aimed at Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, but it antagonized two other supervisors who say dropoff sites save money and are convenient for voters.
…The Senate Ethics & Elections Committee’s draft bill (SPB 7068) would require voters to return absentee ballots only to the main elections office, branch elections office, polling rooms at an early voting site or an election supervisor’s P.O. box at a post office. The committee is chaired by Latvala, R-Clearwater, who said he was “putting it out there for full public discussion.”
Early on when Detzner first issued a directive telling local election supervisors they couldn’t use the drop off sites, voting rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida claimed officials wouldn’t necessarily have to follow the directive because supervisors are only bound to state law.
However, if this bill passes and is signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott, local election officials will have to follow the new rule.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, who has long been criticizing the GOP-led Florida Legislature for what he calls restrictive voting legislation, spoke out against Detzner’s directive.
And now, he’s urging state lawmakers not to approve Latvala’s bill.
According to a letter shared with the press, Nelson wrote:
I want to express my concern over a provision in new legislation that would reportedly limit the use of absentee ballot drop-off sites.
Some believe such a measure would have a negative impact on Floridians who rely on drop-off sites due to proximity to their homes or workplaces.
After enduring numerous fiascos in the recent election cycle, including lines that stretched for hours at early voting sites and at the polls on election day, the last thing Floridians need are laws that make it harder for them to exercise their right to vote.
I respectfully urge you to reconsider this provision, and to work with elections supervisors in Florida on ways to make it easier – not harder – for citizens to vote.
Pinellas County’s elections supervisor Deborah Clark – along with others—has been ignoring Detzner’s directive. Pinellas is currently going through a closely-watched and contentious special election.
Clark, a Republican, also laments that Secretary of State Ken Detzner is pushing legislation to bar counties from accepting absentee ballots anywhere but in an elections office. More than 40 percent of Pinellas county’s absentee ballots are dropped by voters at 14 drop-off locations, including tax collector offices, libraries and other offices.
“I do not understand why the secretary of state, the chief elections official for the state of Florida, would want to eliminate an option that voters have to participate by returning their ballot to the ballot drop-off locations,” Clark said.
Drop-off sites are used largely in populous counties, but other counties have also been considering them—mostly in an effort to avoid a repeat of the disastrous 2012 election in Florida.
The 2012 presidential election was fraught with a lot of problems for various reasons, but one of the problem areas for voting in Florida has long been absentee ballots. Because of the way absentee ballots are administered currently, they have a potential for fraud. However, until now, lawmakers have only legislated in-person voting.