CLEARWATER — Pinellas residents will have more opportunities to vote early in the Nov. 4 general election and will be able to drop off absentee ballots at remote sites despite recent objections to the practice.
The expansion of early voting is a bit of a reversal for Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, who has long favored mail ballots as more economical.
Clark will open five early voting sites, which include two new ones, at the Gulfport Community Center and the Centre of Palm Harbor.
The hours the five sites will be open also will expand to 168, a 75 percent increase from the 2012 general election. Early voting will run from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 20 to Nov. 2 — at a cost of $313,177.
Julie Marcus, the deputy elections supervisor, delivered the news to county commissioners during a budget workshop Thursday. Clark is out of town.
Marcus noted that Clark lobbied for a bill to give elections offices more flexibility in where they can offer early voting beyond city halls and libraries. Anticipating the bill's passage last year, Clark's office surveyed potential sites and selected the two community centers for their location, size, available parking and disability access.
The controversy over the remote dropoff sites seems to have subsided since December, when Secretary of State Ken Detzner issued a directive to stop collecting absentee ballots at libraries and tax collector offices because it ran afoul of state law. Clark served notice that she would ignore Detzner's order because the law was on her side.
Marcus said Detzner's office sent an observer to Pinellas for the March election and the visit resulted in a "glowing" report.
"There's no reason for us to feel we can't move forward and provide these locations that provide tremendous convenience for voters," she said.
Pinellas has used the remote sites since 2008. In the March election, nearly 70 percent of county voters cast absentee ballots, and about one out of eight voters overall used a remote site to return a ballot. Clark's office will offer 11 sites for the primary and general elections.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, has criticized Clark for having an "extreme" emphasis on voting absentee. He also blames Clark for having too few early voting sites. Latvala filed a bill this past session to put Clark's remote dropoff boxes out of business but tabled the proposal when it failed to garner support.
On Thursday, Latvala called Clark's decision to offer more early voting sites "a step in the right direction. It still doesn't keep pace with what other large counties have done, but five is better than three."
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.