Sen. Bill Nelson blasts Gov. Scott and Secretary of State Ken Detzner for absentee voting change

12/03/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Bill Nelson, Craig Latimer, voter supression, Deborah Clark, 13th Congressional District, Rick Scott, Ken Detzner, elections, Voting


U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer are angry with Florida Republicans for a directive they say supresses voter turnout.

photo by Janelle Irwin

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, is rallying behind Supervisors of Elections who say they will not adhere to a directive issued by Florida’s Secretary of State to only accept mail in ballots at official offices. During a press conference at the Federal Courthouse in downtown Tampa Tuesday, Nelson said the move will put undue hardship on voters who increasingly prefer dropping off mail-in ballots in person.

Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner issued the directive last week sending shock-waves through county supervisors of elections who weren’t consulted and didn’t see it coming. Most notably, Pinellas County’s head of elections, Deborah Clark, has said she will not change the way votes are collected as the county is set to start mailing out ballots for a congressional special election next. Nelson, is backing Clark’s move and encouraging other supervisors to follow suit.

“A change not in law, but a change in interpretation by the Governor’s hand-picked head of the Secretary of State’s office in an interpretation to say that Supervisors of Election cannot do what many of them have been doing for several years in order to make it easier to vote.”

Nelson called out Tallahassee Republicans who just last year changed voting laws to shorten the length of early voting days. It’s a move Nelson says caused people to wait in long lines for hours on end in some counties. He echoed talking points from disapproving Democrats last year saying elected officials should be making it easier to vote, not harder.

“Out of somewhere around 250,000 votes that were cast in the last election, over 100,000, or 42%, were cast by absentee ballot. And therefore if that big of a percentage of the body of voters is voting that particular method, then should not we make it easier instead of harder to cast what is one of the most precious rights that we can exercise under a constitutional democracy?”

Nelson says the directive, supported by Governor Rick Scott will suppress voter turnout, but he would not comment on which political party may suffer the biggest blow.

“You all would like me to stand up here and bang the table and talk about a partisan thing, but I don’t want to talk about that.”

In Pinellas, Supervisor of Elections Clark could face a legal challenge for refusing to abide by the new directive. But Nelson says it’s the interpretation that should be challenged.

“Clearly to me, it’s a motive of trying to suppress the vote in a low turnout Congressional election in the 13th Congressional District in Pinellas County. The Timing is extraordinary. The legal justification is specious and I don’t think that there is a court in Florida that would uphold the Governor’s position.”

That legal justification includes allegations that turning in mail in ballots at unofficial locations could lend to voter fraud. But Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer says that claim is not only wrong, it’s offensive.

“If I had an election coming up tomorrow or next week, I would be right there with Deb Clark. I would not be closing these sites down because I know they’re secure, I know they’re safe and I also know that they’re convenient to the voters in our community.”

The ballot boxes where voters turn in mail in ballots are secured with an anti-tampering seal and monitored at all times. A poll worker verifies that ballots are signed and then they are put into the boxes which are hand delivered to the Supervisor’s office each evening.

“In Hillsborough County here this last election we had 15 early vote sites. Thirteen of those sites were at libraries around the county depicted in this map. And let me just remind you that Hillsborough County is a county of 1,000 square miles. So, we’re talking about convenience to voters. If we were to adhere to this directive, we would immediately lose 13 of these sites around the county and the only two sites you could deposit a vote by mail ballot would be at our downtown office if you can find parking in the area or in Brandon at the Gilder Service Center.”

Asked why voters couldn’t just drop their ballots in the mail without having to even leave their driveway, Sen. Nelson said some people just want to see their vote get to the right place.

“Have you seen, recently, the confidence that people have in the post office?”

If the decision by Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark is challenged by Florida’s Secretary of State the case would be made top priority because the county is within 60 days of an election. The special primary election to replace deceased congress member Bill Young is on January 14. Young was a Republican who held the officer for more than 40 years and the seat is considered a possible grab for Democrats.

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