TAMPA -- Sen. Bill Nelson, R-Orlando, said Tuesday a new rule restricting absentee ballot drop-offs will make voting more difficult for Democrats and Republicans in Florida.
Nelson commented at a news conference held after he met with a Tampa Bay-area elections supervisor to discuss the new directive.
Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner, chief elections adviser for Republican Gov. Rick Scott, on Nov. 25 ordered county elections officials not to "solicit return" of absentee ballots at locations other than an elections office or branch, because it's not allowed by law.
Nelson said he's concerned the new rule is an attempt at voter suppression.
"This is so obvious that it's making it harder to vote for the average folks, whether Republican or Democrat," he said.
Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Michael Bennett said Detzner erred in directing the state's 67 elections officers to quit offering drop-off sites for absentee ballots other than main offices.
Bennett said he plans to lobby the state over the issue because of its potential for lowering voter participation.
Pinellas County's Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark brought the issue to a head after Detzner issued his directive last week, telling Gov. Scott's administra
tion Monday she refused the order and would continue to allow voters to drop absentee ballots at satellite locations.
Those locations are secured by deputies with locked ballot boxes and numbered seals. With absentee balloting growing in popularity and the ease extra satellite sites provide voters, the state elections supervisors support Clark's stance.
In Manatee County, Bennett plans to improve absentee balloting by letting senior citizens vote at large nursing homes as already allowed by the state, he said.
Other elections supervisors agree.
Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer said he has 15 sites where voters can drop off ballots prior to Election Day. If he were to follow the new directive, 13 locations would be closed.
"I think it's ridiculous," Latimer said. "I was flabbergasted when this memo came out."
A spokeswoman from the Florida Secretary of State's office did not return a telephone call and email Tuesday.
Nelson said the issue is especially important in Pinellas County, where there is an upcoming congressional election.
"Why now, on the eve of a special congressional election?" Nelson said.
Pinellas County Supervisor Deborah Clark said she will continue to urge voters to drop off absentee ballots at satellite locations.
Clark wrote Monday to Detzner saying she was disappointed he didn't contact Florida's county elections supervisors about the directive.
She said her drop-off sites are in full compliance with a federal elections plan she filed to get federal voter education money. She said the multiple drop-off sites are staffed by deputized elections workers and noted they have been very successful during the six years she's used them.
"During the last several years, we have been able to increase voter turnout while decreasing the cost of elections in Pinellas County," she wrote to Detzner.
Latimer also stations an elections worker at the early voting drop-off site. That person stays with a locked ballot box all day and takes the box to a central elections office at the end of each day.
Latimer said if he were organizing an election now, he would also keep his drop-off locations open. Since Hillsborough County is 1,000 square miles, people would have to travel at least 40 miles to deposit an early ballot if he closed most of his drop-off sites, he said.
"It would be a great loss to the people in our community," he said. "This is a solution to a problem that didn't exist."
Voters can choose to mail ballots prior to Election Day, but Nelson said he doubts people would want to do that.
"Have you seen recently the confidence people have in the Post Office?" he said.