At this point, the slogan for Republican Secretaries of State around the country seems to be: "If it ain't broke, break it!"
That's certainly the case in Florida, where Sec. of State Ken Detzner --- fresh off his and Governor Rick Scott's embarrassing and failed 2012 purge of supposed "non-citizen voters" from the rolls (with another more recent attempt underway since then) --- is at it again. And this time, Detzner seems to be facing a full-blown uprising from county Supervisors of Elections (SOE) refusing to carry out a new directive which would make it more difficult for absentee voters to cast their ballot.
The elected SOEs are claiming that the new directive by Detzner, an appointee of Gov. Rick Scott (R), was neither asked for nor necessary under state law. They Supervisors have also denied Detzner's initial claim that the directive was issued in response to requests by two SOEs.
Last week, Detzner issued a directive [PDF] to county SOEs instructing them that they may no longer allow voters to use secured remote absentee ballot drop-off stations created at locations like public libraries and tax-collectors offices. Suddenly, according to Detzner's new rules, all absentee ballots must either be mailed in, or dropped off at county election offices.
The directive was issued just prior to an upcoming special election to replace the late, long-serving Republican Congressman Bill Young in the 13th Congressional District, and it has led to both suspicion for its motives, and somewhat of a bi-partisan mutiny from election officials, leading one well-known Florida SOE to respond tersely to The BRAD BLOG's request for comment last week this way: "I do have a comment, legally it's not worth the paper it's printed on"...
That sharp response came from Leon County Supervisor of Elections Ion Sancho. He is so entrusted by both major parties in Florida that he was placed in charge of the state's 2000 Presidential recount (at least until it was cancelled by the U.S. Supreme Court.)
But he's hardly the only election official seemingly prepared to defy the Detzner order. Pinellas County SOE Deborah Clark, a Republican, emailed a reply to Detzner [PDF] on Monday, cc'd to all of the SOEs in the state, stating flatly that she plans to continue using drop-off locations for absentee ballots, "including in the impending special primary election."
The 13th Congressional District in Florida, where the election will be held to replace Young, is now entirely in Pinellas County.
After describing her list of detailed security procedures for drop-off locations in her county, along with what she sees as legal inconsistencies in Detzner's interpretation of the Florida election statutes, Clark wrote that her current procedures "are in full accord" with "both the Election Code and the guidance set forth by the Florida Supreme Court" for the casting and collection of absentee ballots.
Palm Beach County SOE Susan Bucher told The BRAD BLOG that while her county does not use drop-off locations for absentee ballots, because they "have offices geographically located throughout the county," she was "not aware of any problems that other supervisors had with drop off locations such as the Tax Collector's Office or public libraries."
Bucher says that Clark, who has been using remote drop-off locations since 2008 without any problems, would be most impacted in Pinellas, near the Tampa area, particularly given the upcoming special election there.
"Deborah Clark has worked hard to get many of her voters to vote by absentee ballot," Bucher, a Democrat, told us. "Last year 42% or over 100,000 voters voted by absentee," in Pinellas. "She has the highest ratio of absentee voters to registered voters in the state."
"The directive takes away options that some supervisors would like to have for ease and access for their voters," Bucher explained.
"I was surprised, to say the least," Volusia County's SOE Ann McFall told ThinkProgress' Igor Volsky last week after the directive was first issued. "Why create a problem when none currently exists?," she asked, noting that Detzner might have waited to ask the state SOEs for their input at their upcoming winter meeting before issuing his edict.
McFall, a Republican, was highly critical of the attempted Scott/Detzner voter purge last year as well, and refused to remove voters from the rolls that the pair had claimed, incorrectly, to be "non-citizens".
"This is not promoting ballot accessibility," Clark told the Tampa Bay Times on the day the directive was issued last week. "I'm very worried about this. I'm just stunned."
Detzner's edict claims that it is "for the purpose of maintaining uniformity in the interpretation and implementation of Florida election laws." He claims in his memorandum to Supervisors that it was issued after the Division of Elections (DOE) had "been asked for clarification regarding the law governing the return of absentee ballots."
That claim appears to be untrue.
The Palm Beach Post reports that Brittany Lesser, a spokesperson for Detzner, said the directive was "in response to questions from two elections supervisors." At first it was unclear who those SOEs were, but they were later identified by Detzner, before both of them spoke up to say "they were not asking for either a directive or even an advisory opinion."
One of them, Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley responded in an email to Lesser, charging that his staff had simply been attempting to notify the DOE about an error found in Florida's 2014 Voter Registration & Voting Guide. "A simple 'thank you' from the Division would have sufficed for catching an error & bringing it to the Division's attention in lieu of falsely relaying to the media that I put [in] for a 'request!'," Corley wrote, according to the Post.
"I'm embarrassed for them because it's a new low," Corley added, questioning why the Administration would issue a directive like this so close to an upcoming election. "Clearly nobody asked for any clarification on this," he said.
The other Supervisor cited by Detzner as having requested an advisory opinion was Clay County's Chris Chambless. He also disputed Detzner's claim. "In my past experiences, an informal telephone conversation is in no way the process with which a Supervisor of Elections would request an advisory opinion...much less a directive from the Secretary of State," he wrote in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
"Does it fire up my Irish temper a little bit?" Corley told the Post. "Sure it does. But it's not that I get mad that they're using me as a ruse for this silly directive...What makes me angry is I'm trying to figure out where's this coming from? The timing is very unfortunate," he said. "I just am scratching my head trying to figure out what their motivation is. I'd like to think it's not nefarious. I'd like to think it's in the name of uniformity."
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D) jumped into the fray on Tuesday, telling the Tampa Bay Times that "whoever is responsible for this particular edict is responsible for attempting to suppress the vote."
While Rep. Bill Young, first elected to Congress in 1971, was the longest serving Republican in the U.S. Congress when he died this past October, the race to fill his seat is being described as a toss-up for now.
Meanwhile, after Clark said she intends to continue using two libraries and three tax collector branches as absentee ballot drop-off sites for the upcoming January 14th special primary election, Detzner seemed to begin to back down a bit in response to the uprising by Tuesday night.
Despite Clark's letter stating that she will not follow his directive, Detzner told the Times he did "not see the need for any further legal action," though the paper also notes that he did not mention any plans for changing the statewide directive.
But the criticism of Detzner continued late Tuesday, as Hillsborough County SOE Craig Latimer described the directive as "ridiculous."
"I was flabbergasted. This is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist," he said at a news conference with Sen. Nelson. Latimer, the Times notes, is a Democrat, though he "applauded the stand taken by Clark, a Republican."
"If I had an election coming up tomorrow or next week, I would be right there with Deb Clark," said Latimer, who used drop-off locations at 13 public libraries during last year's Presidential election. "I wouldn't be closing those sites down. They are secure. They are safe."
This uprising is just the latest in a series of continuing battles between Florida's county election supervisors and the administration of Gov. Rick Scott who faces his own re-election contest next November.