By the close of business Friday, Historic City News learned that elections officials around the state were scratching their heads as they read a directive distributed by Secretary of State Ken Detzner which has a direct impact on how St Johns County voters cast their absentee ballots in the upcoming 2014 elections.
Since taking office, St Johns County Supervisor of Elections, Vicky Oakes, has made it one of her priorities to be sure that everyone who is eligible to vote is properly registered and exercises that right — and civic responsibility. Oakes tells Historic City News today that she has been collecting voted absentee ballots at all 6 early voting sites since 2006; and, during the 2012 General Election, four-percent of all absentee ballots returned were turned in at the early voting sites.
“Red absentee ballot drop-off boxes made their debut in St Johns County during the 2012 General Election — they are secure, metal, locked boxes, placed in government agencies throughout the county in places such as public libraries and Tax Collectors Offices,” Oakes explained to Editor Michael Gold. “These highly visible boxes were on the counters where they were in plain sight of the employees at all times; because, voters were required to place their voted absentee ballots into the boxes themselves.”
However, through his attorney, Maria Matthews, Esq., the Secretary of State issued “Directive 2013-01, Return of Absentee Ballots” instructing the state’s 67 elected supervisors of elections that they “should never solicit delivery of absentee ballots to any location other than the supervisors’ offices.” The exception is return of a previously requested ballot to be cancelled when the voter elects to vote in person — either at an early voting site or polling place.
That has Vicky Oaks, and most of the other supervisors, asking, “Why?” St Johns County incorporates 600 square-miles of land; which is populated today by 154,327 registered voters; about 2,000 more than were registered for the presidential election in 2012. In that General Election, November 6, 2012, there were 115,390 total ballots counted — including early voting, absentees and provisional ballots. The fewer dates and places available to vote, the lower turnout you can expect; and that, Oakes says, is not a good thing. “Elections are decided by the people who show up,” Oakes quipped.
The “Polling Place Procedures Manual” published by the Division of Elections, directs a supervisor not to accept delivery of a voted absentee ballot at a polling place by a voter who does not want to vote in person; but, instead, instruct the voter to “take the absentee ballot to the office of the supervisor of elections”.
Secretary Detzner argues that since an absentee ballot is deemed to have been “cast” when it is received by the supervisor, two things are required of the supervisor for the ballot to be eligible to be counted:
1) keep the ballot safely in his or her office
2) determine whether the ballot was received by 7:00 p.m. on Election Day
Receipt of a voted absentee ballot by the supervisor at an early voting site, polling place, or drop box, not within the supervisor’s office, renders the first requirement impossible and undermines the second requirement of determining whether the ballot was timely received.
We asked Oakes if she could explain how the procedure adopted in her office could comply with applicable statutes, given Detzner’s concerns. She explained that the red boxes were checked and empties on a regular basis by her elections deputies who had a key. The ballots went from the voter’s hands, directly to supervisor of elections staff, who returned the absentee ballots to the Elections Office.
The absentee ballot drop boxes provided addition services to voters in areas of the county in which it was not practicable to provide an early voting location. Oakes reported that the absentee ballot drop boxes were so successful that 10% of the absentee ballots for the November 2012 Presidential General Election were returned through the drop boxes.
Mail service being what it is, Oakes says the mailing of elections documents in the future may have to be further reduced — especially with the elimination of mail on Saturday beginning in 2014.
“I respectfully disagree with Secretary Detzner, as there is nothing in Florida Statutes which prohibits absentee ballot drop off locations,” Oakes emphasized to Historic City News. “I look forward to working with other Supervisor of Elections and our Association to seek legislative changes prior to the 2014 elections which will allow these services to continue to be offered for the benefit of our local voters.”