The Florida Legislature performed a public service when it required county elections supervisors to open early voting polling places, even if it later foolishly limited their use. But Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark doesn't like early voting or its cost, and her stubborn crusade to instead direct Pinellas voters toward mail balloting is wrongheaded. She should be making it as easy to vote as possible, not limiting options.
Pinellas has only three early voting sites, all of them elections offices south of Clearwater. Compare that number of sites to Duval County, which has a smaller population but 15 early voting sites. Or Hillsborough County with 13 sites, or Orange County with 10, or Pasco County with seven. It adds up to Pinellas voters being shortchanged.
U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, is urging Clark to open more sites. State law requires that elections supervisors use their offices as polling places for early voting, but it also grants supervisors the discretion to set up other sites in city halls and libraries. Pinellas County has a wealth of those, but Clark won't use them. She believes voting by mail is easier and cheaper, and she gives those factors great weight when her priority should be to provide every opportunity for Pinellas residents to vote in any legal way they find convenient.
Clark provides a list of reasons she thinks her way is the right way. She says she has been forced to cut costs because of Amendment 1 and that reducing early voting sites saves $250,000 per election. But she has no explanation for how other counties are able to afford more sites.
She says paper balloting and requirements to report voting results by precinct have created arduous paperwork challenges at early voting sites. They certainly have, but other counties don't seem scared off by the task.
With record-setting turnout expected for the presidential election, Clark fears long lines and frustrated voters at early voting sites. That argues for more sites, not fewer.
Still, Clark is adamant that it makes more sense for her office to mail ballots to people who want to vote early. Then, she says, they can return the ballots by mail or drop them off at one of 14 dropoff sites, including libraries, recreation centers and tax collector offices. But what makes perfect sense to Clark may not be so perfect for voters. They may be more comfortable voting in person. Or they may be uncomfortable dropping off their ballots at places where elections are not the primary business and just hoping the ballots get to the right place to be counted. For good reason, voters don't have a particularly high level of trust in the election process.
Of her crusade to make Pinellas early voters use the mail, Clark says, "It's not easy to go it alone, but I have a strong sense of right and wrong and I have the courage to do what I know is right."
In this case, she is alone and dead wrong. It should not be harder to find an early voting site in Pinellas than it is in Hillsborough. Or Pasco. Or Orange. Or Duval. Or. . .