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Gov. Rick Scott's administration eases showdown over Pinellas election

With furor growing over his surprise announcement of new restrictions on the handling of absentee ballots, Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner did Tuesday what critics say he should have done in the first place.

He talked to a supervisor of elections — in particular, Deborah Clark of Pinellas County.

And later Tuesday night, Detzner followed up with a letter to Clark suggesting he is satisfied with her work to make sure absentee ballots will be secure in Pinellas County's upcoming special congressional election to replace the late C.W. Bill Young.

Detzner also signaled he has no interest in upping the ante on a controversy that is pitting elected officials from around Florida against Gov. Rick Scott's administration. "I do not see the need for any further legal action at this time," concluded Detzner, Scott's top elections official.

But neither did he suggest any change to the new statewide directive announced last week.

A spokeswoman said Clark received Detzner's letter at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday and would have to review it with a county attorney before commenting on it.

Detzner's letter came one day after Clark said she would not follow orders from Tallahassee that said elections supervisors "should not solicit return of absentee ballots at any place other than a supervisor's office."

Instead, Clark, whose office will run a Republican primary election in the congressional District 13 race on Jan. 14, plans to use two libraries and three tax collector branch offices as dropoff sites, in addition to her three offices.

She has used the dropoff sites for six years and she told the state, "I plan to continue using them, including in the impending special primary election." She said the sites are "in full compliance with the law" and were included in plans her office has submitted to Tallahassee to get federal voter-education money.

"You are clearly working hard to ensure that every eligible voter has a chance to make their voice heard during Pinellas County elections," Detzner wrote in response. He suggested that security procedures she described to him had not been sufficiently detailed previously and that "quick work to amend your voting security procedures is essential" prior to the special election to replace Young.

The GOP primary includes three candidates: Mark Bircher, David Jolly and Kathleen Peters. The winner faces former Florida Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink, a Democrat, on March 11.

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson said Tuesday that "whoever is responsible for this particular edict is responsible for attempting to suppress the vote."

Detzner has said his directive was in response to questions from supervisors in Pasco and Clay counties and was aimed at ensuring that election laws are carried out uniformly.

But it stunned elections supervisors who were not consulted beforehand.

"It's ridiculous," said Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer, who spoke with Nelson during a news conference Tuesday at the Democratic senator's Tampa office. "I was flabbergasted. This is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist."

Latimer, a Democrat, applauded the stand taken by Clark, a Republican.

"If I had an election coming up tomorrow or next week, I would be right there with Deb Clark," Latimer said. "I wouldn't be closing those sites down. They are secure. They are safe."

Noting that the state announced the change shortly before the special election in Pinellas, Nelson said he has asked his staff to contact the U.S. Justice Department about whether the directive violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965 or the Help America Vote Act of 2002.

"I believe there are federal issues of voting rights that attach to this," said Nelson, who doubted that the state's restriction would be upheld in court. "The timing is extraordinary, and the legal justification is specious."

Last year, Latimer used 13 public libraries as sites where voters could drop off absentee ballots. At each, voters placed their ballots in locked and sealed ballot boxes under the supervision of his staff. Losing those sites, he said, "would be a great loss to the people in our community."

Voters living in the most remote corners of Hillsborough would have to drive more than 40 miles to drop off an absentee ballot at an elections office, he said.

Of course, one alternative is to put an absentee ballot in the mail. In Hillsborough, many absentee voters do just that. Last year, Latimer's office received about 167,000 absentee ballots, with about 10,000 of them being dropped off at libraries.

By comparison, more than 105,000 Pinellas voters returned their ballots to dropoff sites in the 2012 presidential election.

A key difference is that Hills­borough, along with Duval, is one of only two counties in the state that pay the postage of mailing an absentee ballot to the Supervisor of Elections Office.

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, danielson@tampabay.com or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

Gov. Rick Scott's administration eases showdown over Pinellas election 12/03/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 11:33pm]

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