When Secretary of State Ken Detzner told election supervisors Monday that they can't encourage voters to drop off completed absentee ballots at drop off sites or early voting sites, it touched off a furor, in part because of the timing.
The state ruling would seem to have its biggest impact in Pinellas County, where Supervisor of Elections Deb Clark is so aggressive in promoting voting by mail that she has a system of secure remote drop-off locations to make it easy for voters to return absentees. If Clark can't use those sites, she said, the turnout likely would be lower in the upcoming special election to replace the late U.S. Rep. CW Bill Young.
But as it turns out, the issue had actually been raised earlier by two other supervisors -- both of whom disagree with the state's interpretation that the law prohibits voters from handing in absentee ballots at early voting sites.
First, the sharp-eyed Brian Corley in Pasco noticed that the state Division of Elections had revised its Voter Registration Guide in September. Corley wrote to the division to alert them to an "error," as he called it. On page 17, the guide reads: "Do not return your voted absentee ballot to a polling place or early voting site unless you want to vote at the polls" (underscore added for emphasis).
"When did this come into play?" Corley's office asked the state. The response from Gary Holland at the Division of Elections: The state has always taken the position that a voter cannot hand in an absentee ballot at an early voting site unless that site is also a supervisor of elections office.
Some supervisors are apoplectic about that interpretation, because it is common practice in many areas to accept absentees at early voting sites, since they are staffed by employees of the elections office.
The second supervisor who raised questions was Chris Chambless of Clay County. He told the Times/Herald that he asked Holland if "secure ballot drop boxes" can be used to collect absentees at city halls in his county, which has rural pockets. Chambless is a big proponent of that idea, but Holland said that wouldn't be legal.
"I responded that I disagree and I would like for him to research so that we may discuss further," Chambless said in an email to the Times/Herald. He said: "Providing a secure ballot drop box during early voting is a common sense solution to meet the voter's needs."
As Chambless described it, a secure sealed ballot drop box is in the polling room in the full view of the sworn election canvassing board, and after the polls close each day the ballot containers' seals are verified, broken and the contents logged and transferred to elections staff and moved to the elections office again under seal.
In Orlando, Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles wasn't pleased with the state directive, because he said it undermines the customer service that supervisors strive to provide to voters. Not only that, Cowles said, but the Legislature changed the law to allow voters to update their signature at the polls if the signature didn't match the one on file.
That change, he said, encourages more voters to personally hand in their ballots, rather than drop them in a mailbox.
Said Cowles of state elections officials: "Why didn't they talk to us?"