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  1. Florida Politics

Pinellas now ground zero in Florida's fight over voting

Published Mar. 23, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's new battleground over voting is the unlikeliest of places: a cozy branch library in Pinellas Park.

It's one of five remote locations where Pinellas voters put absentee ballots in locked boxes under the watchful eyes of poll workers. Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark has used libraries and tax collectors' offices as dropoff sites in the past three election cycles as a way to encourage people to vote absentee and avoid the possibility of long lines at early voting locations.

Clark's dropoff sites have become symbols of her emphasis on voting by mail or absentee over all other forms of voting. Her three early voting sites in the 2012 election were by far the fewest of any large county in Florida.

Along the way, Clark has attracted powerful enemies and supporters and now Pinellas is ground zero in Florida's never-ending fight over voting procedures.

Gov. Rick Scott's top elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, sought to shut down the dropoff sites by saying he was clarifying existing law that didn't allow them — and Clark defied him.

As thousands of voters used the sites in the Congressional District 13 special election, Detzner dispatched an assistant to Pinellas for four days to take pictures of sealed boxes, count security cameras and generally monitor activity for consistency with a security plan on file with the state.

Clark passed the review with flying colors.

"The activities associated with ballot dropoff locations match the approved security procedures," the review said.

Clark, a Republican, has won four straight countywide elections since she was appointed supervisor by former Gov. Jeb Bush in May 2000. Clark faced criticism in the 2008 presidential election after voters waited up to four hours to cast ballots at one of three early voting sites, and she has been promoting voting by mail ever since.

By defending her use of remote absentee ballot dropoff sites, Clark has become a hero to Democrats whose strategy is to criticize Republicans for making it harder for people to vote. On a recent visit to state House Democrats in Tallahassee, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson praised Clark for standing up to Scott's people. "To the credit of the supervisor, she told them to go fly a kite," Nelson said. "You start to see the heavy hand of voter suppression."

Clark has another powerful critic in Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. He has criticized Clark for having an "extreme" emphasis on voting absentee which he calls "wrong." He blames Clark for having too few early voting sites and is using his bully pulpit in Tallahassee to pressure her to open more.

"She's basically changing Pinellas into a vote-by-mail county," Latvala said. "Why should one supervisor decide she's going to make everybody vote by mail?"

Latvala says absentee ballots are more susceptible to fraud than other voting methods and that Clark's push for absentee voting is also an invitation to trouble. He predicted a future candidate will get arrested or indicted just before an election, but will still win because most people will have already cast ballots.

"People will have already voted and they can't get their ballots back," Latvala said.

Latvala filed a bill (SB 1660) to put Clark's remote dropoff boxes out of business, but he tabled the proposal at a recent meeting. With no interest from the House, other senators took it as a sign that the issue is dead for this session in another apparent victory for Clark and her dropoff sites.

"Why continue the battle if the House is determined to do nothing?" said Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth.

Clark said she's not forcing Pinellas voters to vote a certain way.

"It's an insult to our voters to suggest that they are being made to use absentee or mail ballots. Our voters make their own decisions," Clark said. "It's their choice. They prefer absentee ballots."

Figures from Clark's office show that voter turnout in Pinellas has improved since 2006 and has exceeded the statewide average in seven of 10 elections while saving money. Early voting sites cost more than $60,000 each to operate and do not boost turnout, she said.

"When you reduce costs and increase voter participation, that's nothing to apologize for," Clark said.

Latvala's lament of too few early voting sites may yet yield results, however. Clark says she's committed to adding two early voting sites — probably at the north and south ends of the county — if they have sufficient floor space and parking.

"I have always been open to adding new early voting sites," Clark said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

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