TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Rick Scott's chief elections official issued an order Monday to all 67 elections supervisors that imposes new restrictions on how and where voters can return completed absentee ballots.
Secretary of State Ken Detzner said people who vote by mail should return ballots to elections offices only, calling for an end to remote dropoff sites used as a convenience for voters. He said his directive is necessary to maintain uniformity in how election laws are carried out.
"Supervisors should not solicit return of absentee ballots at any place other than a supervisor's office, except for the purpose of having the absentee ballot canceled if the voter wants to vote in person," Detzner wrote.
Some county officials said the change could suppress voter turnout and questioned the state's power to issue such directives on local elected officials.
"The potential effect on voters is that it reduces opportunities for them to return their ballots," said Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, adding she was not consulted by the state. "This is not promoting ballot accessibility. I'm very worried about this. I'm just stunned."
Detzner's order could have its biggest impact in Pinellas, where Clark promotes voting absentee and is planning for the upcoming special election in Congressional District 13 to replace the late Rep. C.W. Bill Young.
The seat has been held by Republicans for decades and is seen as winnable by both parties. The primary election is Jan. 14 and the general is March 11.
Clark said she was deeply disturbed by the tone of Detzner's order, which she said implied that existing practices did not protect ballots.
Clark has used dropoff sites since 2008 and used 14 in the 2012 general election at libraries, tax collectors' branch offices and other places. She said that ballots were kept locked with an audit trail to record their transfer from sites to her office and that many voters told her they consider dropoff sites a more reliable delivery system than putting their ballot in the mailbox.
More than 105,000 Pinellas voters returned their ballots to dropoff sites in the 2012 presidential election, or 42 percent of the county's absentee ballot total.
Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley said Detzner's order revealed a lack of knowledge as to how elections are run.
"I have the utmost respect for Secretary Detzner, but he has never run an election and this directive appears to show that," Corley said. "It does give me pause as being anti-voter, and that greatly concerns me."
Corley said he's troubled that he was never asked his opinion about the change.
"You'd think maybe they would consult the supervisors before they issue something like this," Corley said.
Detzner said he was asked to clarify state law on the return of absentee ballots but did not say who made the request. He did not respond to a request for comment.
The surprise order could further worsen the frayed relations between Scott's administration and elections supervisors, who are elected in every county except Miami-Dade. Supervisors have declined to cooperate with Scott's request that they scrub the voter rolls in a new election-year search for noncitizens after a similar effort was bungled and suspended last year.
Not all counties use remote dropoff sites, but voting by mail is rapidly growing in Florida.
In the 2012 presidential election, 2.4 million people voted absentee out of a statewide total of 8.6 million votes, or 28 percent. More people voted by mail in Pinellas (250,000) than any other Florida county.
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.