Elections supervisors in Florida think of themselves as being in the customer service business.
Their customers are voters.
This simple fact seems lost on Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, which again stands accused of trying to make it harder for people to vote in Florida. This time, the accusations come directly from some elections supervisors.
They should know, right?
“Anti-voter,” said Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley.
The latest trouble erupted a week ago when Secretary of State Ken Detzner issued an edict, or a “directive” as he called it, that county elections supervisors should not “solicit return” of absentee ballots anywhere other than the supervisor’s office. The law is clear, he said.
Yet some counties let voters hand in absentees at early-voting sites, and Pinellas’ Deborah Clark has a network of remote dropoff sites, secure and staffed by her employees, where ballots are kept under seal until they are driven to her headquarters.
Evelyn Balogh, 83, a Tarpon Springs retiree who uses a wheelchair and does not drive, said Clark’s system is why she is still voting.“I don’t know what this man is thinking,” she said of Detzner.
The absentee-ballot dispute is a window into a larger picture. Scott has alienated elections officials like no governor in Florida history:
• He proposed in 2011 to publicly grade their performances, then scrapped the plan after they complained that the criteria were flawed and unfair.
• He signed HB 1355 in 2011, the controversial elections bill with sections many supervisors opposed, such as limits on hours of early voting.
• He has persisted in wanting to scour the voter database for noncitizens after a 2012 effort went awry. Not a single supervisor has agreed to do it again, many citing a lack of confidence in state data and concern that they would mistakenly try to disenfranchise real voters.
Scott needs to be mindful of the fact that elections supervisors have good reputations and almost always get the benefit of the doubt.
In the conservative Panhandle, the Pensacola News Journal ran a Sunday editorial headlined,“Stop meddling with ballots.” It said: “If you can’t purge ’em, restrict ’em. That’s Gov. Rick Scott’s evolving philosophy toward participatory democracy.”
Florida would be a better place if state leaders and all 67 counties worked together to make voting as easy as possible. Elections supervisors are elected, and some chafe at having to heed directives from a political appointee of the governor.
Orange County Supervisor of Elections Bill Cowles in Orlando went so far as to say that the tension between the state and counties is not going to end until the state returns to the old system of an elected secretary of state. (Voters made the job appointed in 1998 when they shrank the Cabinet from six to three members.)
Next weekend, the supervisors meet for a statewide conference in Sarasota. It might be a good idea for Detzner to stay as far away as possible.
Steve Bousquet is the Tampa Bay Times’ Tallahassee bureau chief.