1. Florida Politics

Which is worse: an individual failing or limiting voters?

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Published Feb. 11, 2014

They have called for his head, his job, his political future.

From the governor to the state Republican Party chairman to Democrats in every direction, the chorus has been predictably harmonious.

They say U.S. Rep. Trey Radel, a Republican from Fort Myers, should resign at midterm following his recent guilty plea to a misdemeanor charge of buying cocaine.

Please excuse me for singing a different tune.

Radel's crime was foolish. Reckless. It showed a serious lack of judgment and possibly a major flaw in character. And when he comes up for re-election next year, I would not fault any voter from southwest Florida who wants to go in another direction.

But Radel did not directly harm anyone from his district, other than his own family. He has admitted his mistake, apologized and entered rehab. The consequences are all his own, and probably won't have a major impact on the citizens he was chosen to represent.

To me, that's where the line should be drawn.

Abrupt resignations should be reserved for someone who has knowingly, and repeatedly, acted against the best interests of a significant number of Florida residents.

Like, perhaps, the secretary of state.

In case you haven't noticed, Ken Detzner keeps offering solutions to voting problems that seemingly do not exist. Making matters worse is that his solutions often have a chilling effect on the ability of regular folks to be able to vote, and they seem suspiciously directed toward groups that tend to vote for Democratic candidates.

Take the latest directive issued by his office.

Detzner declared that absentee ballots can no longer be deposited at remote dropoff sites, such as libraries and tax collectors' offices.

How big of an issue is this?

Well, in the 2012 general election in Pinellas County more than 105,000 voters dropped off absentee ballots (as opposed to mailing them) and nearly 64,000 of those ballots were dropped at remote locations. Suffice to say, this is not a tiny concern for Pinellas voters.

And Detzner's rationale for the directive?

He offered two explanations:

No. 1, his office had received requests for clarifications on this matter by two elections supervisors. Except the two supervisors, including Pasco's Brian Corley, have since said their requests were misinterpreted. Corley emailed the Department of State last week to make it clear he did not appreciate his words being so grossly twisted.

No. 2, Detzner said it was his responsibility to provide statewide "uniformity'' of elections. This explanation is almost laughable considering the state gives elections supervisors wide latitude to cater to the particular needs of their counties, including the flexibility to dictate the number of days, the hours and locations of early voting sites.

Even the state statute Detzner quoted to back up his directive smacks of disingenuous thinking. Detzner's memo cites statute 101.67 and quotes a phrase that says supervisors "shall safely keep in his or her office any envelopes received containing marked ballots.''

What Detzner didn't point out is that statute 101.67 only addresses the "safekeeping of mailed ballots'' already delivered to supervisors' offices. It does not even address dropoff locations.

At some point, I wouldn't be surprised if Detzner's office tries to turn this into a question of security. If so, that argument would be equally jokeworthy.

Absentee ballots dropped at remote locations are more secure and handled by fewer people than ballots that wait to be picked up in a mailbox in the front yard.

Where does that leave us?

With a directive that was completely unnecessary, less preferable to many voters and potentially damaging to election results if it reduces voter turnout. That's quite a trifecta of harm for a single memo.

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, who has a special election for a congressional seat in a matter of weeks, is conferring with the county attorney and the counsel for the state association of supervisors to see if the directive is enforceable.

Of course, it's not the first time we've seen this kind of silliness. A year ago, Florida was ridiculed throughout the nation for its longer voter lines brought about by the Legislature's unnecessary reduction in early voting hours. And Detzner was widely criticized for a voter purge effort with its witchhuntlike methods.

So back to our original question:

Who is the greater threat to Florida?