TAMPA — A new state directive restricting absentee ballot returns sparked renewed Democratic accusations of voter suppression Tuesday against Gov. Rick Scott, with suggestions the Scott administration hopes to influence the special election to replace the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young.
Several elections supervisors also criticized the directive from Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, saying it will cause unnecessary inconvenience for absentee voters who return their ballots in person.
Pinellas County Supervisor Deborah Clark pronounced herself “stunned and disappointed” by the directive, saying it could cut voter turnout. Hillsborough’s Craig Latimer said he was “flabbergasted,” and Pasco’s Brian Corley said it “has the perception of being very anti-voter.”
Some supervisors, along with Tallahassee lawyer Ron Labasky, who represents the state Association of Supervisors of Elections, said they don’t consider the directive binding.
Detzner responded to the criticism by releasing a statement that he was trying to enforce Florida law consistently statewide and issued the directive in response to a request for clarification of the law from two county supervisors.
“As the Chief Election Officer for the State of Florida, it is my duty and responsibility to provide uniformity for the statewide implementation of elections,” he wrote. “The directive issued does not change anything in the law, but is a clarification of existing law that was initiated by questions from Supervisors of Elections that prompted us to address this on a statewide level.”
But the two supervisors that Detzner’s office said asked for the directive, Corley and Chris Chambless of Clay County, both Republicans, both denied they had asked for it and said Detzner’s interpretation of the law is wrong.
“I was merely trying to bring to their attention an error in their (voter registration) guide,” said Pasco Supervisor Brian Corley. “Somehow that got twisted into me asking for an opinion.”
Chambless said he had discussed use of drop-boxes at early voting sites with a State Department official, but, “It certainly had nothing to do with requesting a Division of Elections advisory opinion.”
Democrats linked the directive to efforts by the Scott administration to conduct voter roll purges aimed at eliminating non-citizens. They’ve criticized the purges because there’s little indication of any significant number of non-citizens on the rolls, and the purges can result in preventing legitimately registered voters from casting ballots -- most often Democratic-leaning black or Hispanic voters.
Requesting absentee ballots and then returning them in person instead of by mail, the practice the new restrictions apply to, also is a technique used heavily by Democrats in the 2012 election, which reversed the previous Republican dominance of absentee voting.
Mark Ferrulo of the Progress Florida liberal advocacy group said the timing of the directive suggests it was aimed at the special election March 11 in Pinellas’ congressional District 13 -- “the district in Florida that uses more absentee ballots than any other in the state.”
State Democratic Party Vice Chairman Alan Clendenin said voters “should be outraged and infuriated at Rick Scott’s latest and most shameless attempt to suppress votes.”
The directive says if a voter returns a completed absentee ballot in person instead of by mail, it can only be returned to an election supervisor’s office.
For the District 13 race, Clark, a Republican, plans eight sites for returning ballots, including her own three offices, three tax collector’s office and two public libraries. She’s preparing to mail out 76,000 absentee ballots on Dec. 10.
In the 2012 election, more than 105,000 absentee voters, or 42 percent of the total, returned their ballots to various dropoff locations, Clark said. The new directive “takes away options ... does not serve our voters and will limit access to the election process,” she said in an email statement.
Latimer, a Democrat, called the directive “a perfect example of a solution to a problem that never existed.”
He provides absentee drop-off points at early voting sites. In 2012, about 10,000 absentee voters returned ballots to his two offices or 13 early voting sites.
Under the directive, he said, “In the next election, they’re going to be told they have to get in their car and drive to my downtown office or Brandon office,” to return the ballot, or else surrender it at the early voting site for cancellation and then get in line to vote a non-absentee ballot.
Labasky said some members of the Association’s executive board asked him in a conference call Tuesday to research the issue, “and we’ll take it from there.”
The supervisors, who are independently elected, also questioned whether Detzner has the authority to govern their actions.
Labasky said Florida law authorizes the secretary of state to issue a formal advisory opinion on Florida law that’s binding on the supervisor who requests it. The secretary also can issue “written directions and opinions” about questions in the law, but Labasky said those aren’t binding.