TAMPA — U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson jumped into the controversy over new absentee ballot rules Tuesday, accusing the administration of Gov. Rick Scott of seeking to suppress votes in the March 11 special congressional election in Pinellas County, and vowing to look for a legal remedy to overturn the rules.
In a news conference with Hillsborough County Elections Supervisor Craig Latimer, Nelson called the new rules “an attempt to make it more difficult for the voters” to cast absentee ballots in the election to replace the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young.
He called the rules “an interpretation by the governor's hand-picked head of the Secretary of State's office to say that supervisors of elections cannot do what many of them have been doing for several years in order to make it easier to vote.” He said his staff “are going to look at every possible legal way that will stop the secretary of state in his tracks.”
Nelson also linked the rules to what he said was a history of attempts at voter suppression by Scott and the Reublican-dominated state Legislature.
The Secretary of State's office didn't respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Nelson and Latimer were reacting to a directive from Secretary of State Ken Detzner on Nov. 25 limiting allowable sites for voters to return absentee ballots in person.
Detzner, a Scott appointee, said ballots can only be returned to a supervisor of election's office.
Pinellas County Supervisor Deborah Clark, Latimer and others have long allowed voters to return the ballots at other sites such as libraries or other government offices. They say they provide locked and sealed drop boxes accompanied by an elections office official deputized for the purpose, collecting the ballots at the end of each day.
Detzner said that practice violates state law. Latimer, Clark and others question his interpretation of the law and said the Secretary of State's office has known about the practice for years and made no objection.
“The timing is extraordinary,” Nelson said. “Why now on the eve of a special Congressional election instead of for the last five years?”
Clark, a Republican, sent Detzner a letter Monday saying she wouldn't comply with the directive for Jan. 13 primary in the special election. Other Republican supervisors, including Brian Corley in Pasco County, have objected to the directive as well, with Corley calling it “anti-voter.”
Latimer, a Democrat like Nelson, said he has sent no response to Detzner, but added, “If I had an election tomorrow, I'd be doing the same thing Deborah Clark did. I applaud her for standing up for voters.”
Latimer said his objections have nothing to do with partisanship -- “I have a saying in my office -- there's elections and there's politics. We do elections in my office.”
Nonetheless, Nelson, who won't rule out the possibility that he may jump into the race for governor against Scott, clearly was seeking to raise the profile of the issue.
He held the Wednesday news conference immediately after returning to his office from two days aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush observing war games and said he plans to meet with other elections supervisors, including Clark, in coming weeks.
But Nelson played down comments he made to Politico two weeks ago in which he appeared to crack the door open wider on a possible run.
Nelson has been saying for months that he has no intention of running, but leaving the door open by declining to say categorically that he won't.
In the Politico interview, he said he'd consider running if Charlie Crist, the likely Democratic nominee, “gets into trouble.”
Wednesday, Nelson called that “a flip remark” made at a time when he was on crutches from knee surgery and trying to get on an escalator. “You should disregard it,” he said. “Nothing has changed from what I've been saying to you for months.”