Senate bill puts voter dropoff sites in cross hairs

Deborah Clark defied a state order to discontinue dropoff sites.
Deborah Clark defied a state order to discontinue dropoff sites.
Published March 7, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — At the urging of state Sen. Jack Latvala, the Senate will take up voting law changes that include preventing counties from using satellite locations where voters can drop off absentee ballots.

The proposal is aimed at Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark, but it antagonized two other supervisors who say dropoff sites save money and are convenient for voters.

The Senate plan follows a confrontation in December between Clark and Gov. Rick Scott's top elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, who ordered an end to dropoff sites because no law allows it. Clark continues to defy the directive and is using five sites in the Congressional District 13 special election.

Clark has allowed voters to leave completed ballots at branch libraries and tax collectors' offices since 2008, where she said her workers carefully monitor and protect ballots. She sent all Pinellas legislators a letter Thursday saying that if lawmakers ban the practice, it will have a "major impact" on hundreds of thousands of voters and she will have to ask county commissioners for more money.

In an interview airing Sunday on Bay News 9's Political Connections, Clark is again critical of Detzner: "I do not understand why the secretary of state, the chief elections official for the state of Florida, would want to eliminate an option that voters have to participate by returning their ballot to the ballot dropoff locations."

More than 12,000 people have dropped off absentee ballots for next week's special election.

The Senate Ethics & Elections Committee's draft bill (SPB 7068) would require voters to return absentee ballots only to the main elections office, branch elections office, polling rooms at an early voting site or an election supervisor's P.O. box at a post office. The committee is chaired by Latvala, R-Clearwater, who said he was "putting it out there for full public discussion."

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson urged Latvala to reconsider.

"The last thing Floridians need are laws that make it harder for them to exercise their right to vote," Nelson said in a letter.

Among Florida elections supervisors, Clark is the leading proponent of voting absentee or by mail. She says early voting sites are too expensive.

During the 2012 presidential election, Clark had three early voting sites (compared with 14 in Hillsborough), which Latvala said was the fewest of any major urban county in Florida.

"So who's guilty of trying to limit people's opportunity to vote?" Latvala asked.

Two other counties with satellite ballot dropoff locations are Osceola and St. Johns, where both supervisors voiced opposition to the Senate proposal.

"The biggest detriment to voting by mail is not having a stamp," said Osceola Supervisor Mary Jane Arrington. "That's why (the dropoff sites) were so popular."

St. Johns Supervisor of Elections Vicky Oakes placed red metal ballot boxes at 10 sites in 2012, and only her staff members had keys to the boxes.

"I'm disappointed," Oakes said.

Latvala's committee bill, which gets its first hearing Monday, also would require the state to offer online voter registration by July 1, 2015. It's an idea proposed by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, and backed by other Democrats who track voting issues.

Voters could register online through a secure website and a digital signature. Similar systems are used in nearly two dozen states.

Latvala's willingness to include a Democratic proposal increases the likelihood that Democrats will support his proposal to ban absentee ballot dropoff sites.

"I was naive enough to think that if we proved it could work," Clark said, "that other people would see that."

Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.