Florida's Voting Debacles Continue With Restrictive Absentee Ballot Rules

Florida has a long history of voting debacles, from “hanging chads” in 2000 to long lines last year. Despite its troubled past, state officials are still trying to make it harder to vote. The latest change comes with absentee ballot rules.

December 10, 2013
Florida Absentee Ballot Voting

Florida has a long history of voting debacles, from “hanging chads” in 2000 to long lines last year. Despite its troubled past, state officials are still trying to make it harder to vote. The latest change comes with absentee ballot rules.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner issued a directive last month stating election supervisors could only accept absentee ballots that have been dropped off at their county offices. This mandate generated much controversy because it defied common practices of some Florida counties, which allow voters to drop off absentee ballots in person at remote locations, including early voting sites. The change also came just days before at least one county, Pinellas, was scheduled to mail out  absentee ballots for a January special congressional primary election. Last week, Pinellas County Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark refused to close her county’s drop-off sites, and one day later, the secretary of state backed down from strictly enforcing his directive. 

Dramatic shifts in policy right before an election confuse voters and election officials alike. In Pinellas, Detzner’s directive would have directly contradicted information already available to voters on the county website. Timing matters in many things, including elections. 

Detzner knows this. Before the 2012 elections, he tried to purge non-citizens from Florida’s voter rolls with not enough time to do the job properly. County election officials were upset, and thousands of false removals later, Detzner backed down. Right before that was an omnibus election bill which, among other things, dramatically restricted early voting and attempted to neuter voter registration groups, triggering rounds of lawsuits. After the bill’s restrictions led to embarrassingly long lines in the 2012 general election, Florida’s legislature expanded early voting.

But the absentee ballot change isn’t just bad timing — it’s also bad policy. Voters in Florida use these drop-off polling sites. In the 2012 general election, voters in Pinellas County dropped off more than 105,000 of those ballots in person at 14 locations, making up more than 20 percent of the total ballots cast.

Fortunately, not all states restrict voting. In fact, many are working to make elections more accessible. Just this year, Colorado passed a bill that allows voters to register on Election Day, take their registration with them when they move within the state, and avoid being taken off the rolls if they miss an election. At least 20 states currently or will soon allow voters to register online, including new bills passed in Illinois, Virginia, and West Virginia this year. Early voting continues to become more available, with 32 states now offering the option. Maryland expanded its early voting window this past April while also permitting same-day registration, another common sense reform. Despite unfortunate outliers, many states are making progress.

Florida should follow these examples instead of repeating the same poor decisions. Detzner’s directive fits an established pattern of bad policy set out in an equally poor way. Florida’s leaders should consult with election officials and the public before moving ahead with far-reaching voting policies. If they did, they might reverse their bad ideas before they’re implemented in the first place.

(Photo: Flickr)