Detzner’s directive on absentees sets off spirited debate

Secretary of State Ken Detzner’s directive to election supervisors on the return of absentee ballots has set off a fierce debate with some of them criticizing the action and others defending it.

Detzner issued an order to supervisors Monday, telling them they “should not solicit return of absentee ballots at any place other than a supervisor’s office.” The directive appeared to take dead aim at one supervisor, Deborah Clark in Pinellas County, who aggressively promotes voting absentee and has a small network of remote drop-off locations to make it easier for people to turn in their absentee ballots. (Clark may formally respond to Detzner’s order Wednesday).

The state’s order comes as Clark prepares to send thousands of absentee ballots to voters in the upcoming special election in the 13th Congressional District, vacated when longtime Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Young died last month.. Inside absentee ballot envelopes, Clark reminds voters in all caps about MAIL BALLOT DROPOFF LOCATIONS and that "an election employee will be at each site to assist and hand out I VOTED stickers."

Detzner, in effect, said Clark was breaking the law. He issued a statement Tuesday: "It is my duty and responsibility to provide uniformity for the statewide implementation of elections. The directive issued does not change anything in the law, but is a clarification of existing law that was initiated by questions from supervisors of elections that prompted us to address this on a statewide level.”

The Herald/Times asked who sought the clarification. The state sent us an email from Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley from September after spotting new language in the 2014 state voter guide and the response came from assistant director Gary Holland in the Division of Elections: "A voter may only turn in an absentee ballot at an early voting site if the early voting site is a (supervisor’s) office or when the voter wants to vote early and not cast the absentee ballot (at which time, per s. 101.69, {Florida Statutes}, the voter returns the absentee ballot and it is marked “canceled”).

Election Supervisors Brenda Snipes in Broward, Susan Bucher in Palm Beach and Jerry Holland in Duval all said Detzner took the right approach. Snipes said she has never used remote drop-off sites for absentee ballots in Broward: "It’s not allowed," she said.

She said she has used a mobile van traveling around the county — staffed by her personnel — to receive absentees.

In Broward, Snipes said, voters have four options for returning an absentee. They can mail it or drop it off at one of three sites: the main elections office in downtown Fort Lauderdale, a voting equipment center in Laudergill or a branch office in Pompano Beach.

In Miami-Dade County, home to the state’s largest number of registered voters, the new state directive “does not present an issue and we will ensure we are compliant,” Miami-Dade’s Deputy Supervisor of Elections Carolina D. Lopez told the Miami Herald in an email.

Supervisors Bill Cowles in Orange County and Susan Gill in Citrus County both questioned Detzner’s actions. "From a practical standpoint, the voters have been dropping off their voted ballots at early vote sites and drop boxes for years," Gill said. "Voters will not be happy with the change that causes them the inconvenience."

Escambia Supervisor of Elections David Stafford said: "Our association’s general counsel (Ron Labasky) is reviewing it, and I look forward to his assessment. I’m sure it will be a topic of discussion at our upcoming meeting, including whether we will want to seek a legislative remedy."

The ACLU joined the fray. Nancy Abudu, ACLU of Florida director of legal operations, said: "Given this administration’s record of attacks on Floridians’ right to vote, we are concerned that this directive restricts Floridians’ ability to participate in our democracy.” She said Detzner’s directive is "not binding" on supervisors, a matter of legal dispute. Abudu urged supervisors to "eliminate needless roadblocks for voters."

Then there was Evelyn Balogh, a voter in Tarpon Springs who said she uses a wheelchair and a walker, is unable to drive and greatly appreciates Clark’s use of drop-off sites (which have been in use since the 2008 primary). “The whole reason I vote is because I can vote absentee,” Balogh said, adding of Detzner: “I don’t know what this man is thinking.”

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.