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Pinellas County - Latest Flashpoint in Florida Election Policy Debates

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[Image courtesy of 63riders]

Beginning in 2000, Florida has been the site of numerous election policy disputes as the state worked through various disagreements about how voters in the this demographically diverse and politically important states should cast their ballots. The latest dispute is interesting because it's less focused on partisanship and more on differing visions for the future of balloting in the Sunshine State. The Tampa Bay Times has more:

Florida's new battleground over voting is the unlikeliest of places: a cozy branch library in Pinellas Park.

It's one of five remote locations where Pinellas voters put absentee ballots in locked boxes under the watchful eyes of poll workers. Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark has used libraries and tax collectors' offices as dropoff sites in the past three election cycles as a way to encourage people to vote absentee and avoid the possibility of long lines at early voting locations.

Clark's dropoff sites have become symbols of her emphasis on voting by mail or absentee over all other forms of voting. Her three early voting sites in the 2012 election were by far the fewest of any large county in Florida.

Along the way, Clark has attracted powerful enemies and supporters and now Pinellas is ground zero in Florida's never-ending fight over voting procedures.

Pinellas' dropboxes recently withstood scrutiny from the state:

Gov. Rick Scott's top elections official, Secretary of State Ken Detzner, sought to shut down the dropoff sites by saying he was clarifying existing law that didn't allow them -- and Clark defied him.

As thousands of voters used the sites in the Congressional District 13 special election, Detzner dispatched an assistant to Pinellas for four days to take pictures of sealed boxes, count security cameras and generally monitor activity for consistency with a security plan on file with the state.

Clark passed the review with flying colors.

Next, a key critic in the legislature took a run at the practice:

Clark has another powerful critic in Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. He has criticized Clark for having an "extreme" emphasis on voting absentee which he calls "wrong." He blames Clark for having too few early voting sites and is using his bully pulpit in Tallahassee to pressure her to open more.

"She's basically changing Pinellas into a vote-by-mail county," Latvala said. "Why should one supervisor decide she's going to make everybody vote by mail?"

Latvala says absentee ballots are more susceptible to fraud than other voting methods and that Clark's push for absentee voting is also an invitation to trouble. He predicted a future candidate will get arrested or indicted just before an election, but will still win because most people will have already cast ballots.

"People will have already voted and they can't get their ballots back," Latvala said.

But that attempt has also come up short when Latvala tabled his bill - in part because of lack of interest in the House in moving it forward.

For her part Clark - like Detzner and Latvala, a Republican - says that Pinellas voters, not her office, are making the choice to vote by mail (and dropbox):

"It's an insult to our voters to suggest that they are being made to use absentee or mail ballots. Our voters make their own decisions," Clark said. "It's their choice. They prefer absentee ballots."

Figures from Clark's office show that voter turnout in Pinellas has improved since 2006 and has exceeded the statewide average in seven of 10 elections while saving money. Early voting sites cost more than $60,000 each to operate and do not boost turnout, she said.

"When you reduce costs and increase voter participation, that's nothing to apologize for," Clark said.

Even so, Clark is willing to consider additional early voting locations if suitable sites can be found. If and when those sites do become available, it will be interesting to see if any voters currently using the mail/dropbox system switch to early voting, if voters currently voting on Election Day switch to early voting, some combination of both - or no change whatsoever. Such information will help Clark (and the larger field of elections) understand how different voters view the voting process and how they prefer to be a part of it.

Stay tuned ...

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