Even as Gov. Rick Scott's top elections official suddenly backed away from a plan to restrict the way voters can return completed absentee ballots, Florida's top Democrat accused the Scott administration of attempting to suppress voter turnout.
"It's patently obvious. It's an attempt to suppress the vote by people who otherwise might have difficulty getting to the polls on Election Day," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., at a news conference Wednesday at the Palm Beach County Elections Office headquarters.
Americans' right to vote is "precious" and guaranteed by the Constitution, Nelson said. "When you start making it more difficult to cast that ballot, that is interfering with that constitutional right."
Nelson was on the second day of a tour of elections offices to press the issue. He was in Hillsborough County on Tuesday. He's scheduled to visit the Orange County elections supervisor Thursday.
The immediate controversy involves a special election for Congress set for next year in Pinellas County on Florida's west coast. But the big picture involves all Florida elections and how easy, or difficult, it will be for people to register and vote, said Daniel Smith, a political science professor at the University of Florida.
"This is all part of that larger battle for voting rights," Smith said. "The voting process is inherently political. And if you can change the rules of the game, you can create an advantage, or a disadvantage."
Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the Scott appointee who oversees elections, backed down from his attempt to restrict the way Pinellas County allows voters to return absentee ballots. But Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections Susan Bucher said it remains in effect for all the state's 67 counties — leaving the issue unresolved for next year's midterm elections.
The restrictions wouldn't have much of a direct effect in South Florida. Neither Broward nor Palm Beach County uses the system of widespread drop-off sites used in Pinellas.
Palm Beach County has one outdoor absentee ballot drop-off box, planted firmly in the ground outside the elections headquarters. Bucher said she had no intention of removing it and plans to let people use it in next year's elections.
Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes said she routinely publishes a schedule of when her mobile office — a large recreational vehicle — is at various locations around the county for people to drop off absentee ballots. She said she has no plans to change that next year.
Snipes said people need convenient ways to return absentee ballots. "There are a lot of people who don't have money for a stamp or don't' have a means of transportation," she said.
Even in counties where the drop-off sites haven't been used, Smith said it's an important issue.
"We're seeing a power struggle between the independently elected supervisors of elections and Governor Scott," he said. "This is kind of the salvo for kind of stopping these kinds of actions."
Democrats have been voicing complaints about election-related moves by Republicans who control state government. The Democrats argue Republicans have tried to make more difficult for people who might be inclined to vote Democratic.
That included reductions in early voting timed for the 2012 presidential election, which were undone after the state drew national scrutiny for its long election lines; an attempt to purge the voter rolls of non-citizens that snared voters who were, in fact, citizens; and the plan to alter absentee ballot rules in the special election for Congress.
Susan Hepworth, press secretary for the Republican Party of Florida, declined to comment.
Brittany Lessesr, Detzner's communications director, said by email Wednesday that her boss "wants 100 percent of voters to vote and zero percent fraud. We are working toward both of these goals."
Pinellas County residents will vote next year in a nationally watched contest to fill the vacancy left by the death of U.S. Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young.
The controversy flared last week when Detzner moved to restrict the Pinellas system that offers a range of drop-off sites for voters to return completed absentee ballots. After an outpouring of criticism, and resistance from Pinellas County's Republican elections supervisor, Detzner said he is satisfied the county's absentee ballots will be secure.
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