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Pinellas supervisor of elections says she'll ignore state order on absentee ballot drop-off sites

TALLAHASSEE — Pinellas County's chief elections official firmly put Gov. Rick Scott on notice Monday: She will refuse his administration's order and will continue to urge voters to drop off their absentee ballots at satellite locations.

Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said her 6-year-old system of drop-off sites is "in full compliance with the law" and the state has known about them because they are included in plans she sends to the state to get federal voter education money.

"I plan to continue using them, including in the impending special primary election," Clark told Secretary of State Ken Detzner, Scott's chief elections adviser.

Detzner last week issued a surprise directive in which he ordered elections officials not to "solicit return" of absentee ballots at locations other than an elections office or branch, because it's not allowed by law. He said he acted after questions from supervisors Brian Corley in Pasco County and Chris Chambless in Clay County.

In Clark's response, she voiced disappointment that Detzner never sought the opinions of the 67 county supervisors of election before he issued his Nov. 25 directive.

Clark said her drop-off sites are staffed by her deputies, who by law have the same power as a supervisor and who keep watch over locked ballot boxes with numbered seals. The boxes are transported nightly to her headquarters to be canvassed, she said.

"I am confident that the drop-off locations maintained throughout Pinellas County are secure," Clark wrote.

The state had no immediate response to Clark's letter.

In Florida, voting absentee or by mail is growing in popularity and nowhere is it more popular than Pinellas, where Clark promotes it at every opportunity as an alternative to early voting, emphasizing the term "voting by mail" to voting absentee.

More people voted absentee in Pinellas in the 2012 presidential election than in any other Florida county, and turnout in Pinellas has exceeded the statewide average in four of the past five state general elections.

Many voters in Pinellas can cast ballots in the upcoming race to replace the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young in Congress. A three-way Republican primary will be held Jan. 14, and the general election will be March 11. The GOP candidates are Mark Bircher, David Jolly and Kathleen Peters.

Every Pinellas voter who asks Clark's office for an absentee ballot in the upcoming election for Young's seat gets a flier with instructions for "mail ballot drop-off locations."

In the Republican primary, Clark will use five drop-off sites from Jan. 4-14 in addition to her three offices. They include two tax collector offices in Clearwater, on U.S. 19 N and on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard; on 66th St. N in St. Petersburg; and at branch libraries in Pinellas Park and Seminole.

Clark's colleagues quickly rallied around her Monday as they continued to accuse the state of acting against the voters' best interests.

In Pasco, where elections chief Corley uses eight library branches as drop-off sites, all supervised by deputized election workers, he said Clark's actions, unlike Detzner's, "are clearly aimed at helping the most important stakeholders in this process: the voters."

Hillsborough Supervisor Craig Latimer said Detzner's directive "is outside the bounds of (his) legal authority, and I know it is not in the best interest of our voters."

Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said: "It would seem poor timing for Gov. Scott to squash the vote on the eve of an election year, but it's hard to draw any different conclusion."

Macnab said the state order "unjustifiably interferes with absentee voting."

By defying the state's directive on absentee ballot returns, Clark appears to have put the state in a political box: It now must let her ignore its advice or take her to court, provoking a much bigger confrontation.

Under the election laws, the secretary of state may seek a court order "to enforce the performance of any duties" of a supervisor, and if such action is taken within 60 days of an election, the judge must give it top priority.

Times staff writer Rich Shopes contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Pinellas supervisor of elections says she'll ignore state order on absentee ballot drop-off sites 12/02/13 [Last modified: Monday, December 2, 2013 11:51pm]
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