3,000 voters under scrutiny in Clay

By Kile Brewer
Posted 7/3/18

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – An advisory opinion issued by the Florida Department of State could affect more than 3,000 Clay County registered voters.

The opinion, handed down by Elections Director …

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3,000 voters under scrutiny in Clay

Posted

GREEN COVE SPRINGS – An advisory opinion issued by the Florida Department of State could affect more than 3,000 Clay County registered voters.

The opinion, handed down by Elections Director Maria Matthews, was requested by Clay County Supervisor of Elections Chris Chambless and delves into the specifics of mail forwarding services in regards to who can and cannot legally register to vote in a county within the state.

“We were seeing people that had done this all online and were never physically here,” Chambless said. “I asked, I think it was four or five very specific questions, because there was no specific case and law.”

The opinion states that a person who uses a mail forwarding service to establish residency in a county, but has no residential address there, is not a legal resident of the county and that is not sufficient to establish residency for voter registration.

Following the opinion, Chambless met with Douglas Moody and Scott Loehr who own St Brendan’s Isle Inc., a mail forwarding service based in Green Cove Springs and informed them that he would no longer allow their new clients to register to vote in Clay County unless they had previously lived in the county prior to signing up for their service, based on the new opinion from Matthews. Soon after this meeting, Moody penned a letter to County Commissioner Mike Cella, whose district covers the Green Cove Springs area, as a plea for help.

“Our typical client has retired, sold their home and live full time in their RV or vessel,” Moody wrote. “We have learned that the other counties, where our larger competitors exist, will not be following this new advisory opinion as they believe the opinion contradicts previous opinions issued by the Division of Elections. This creates a serious competitive disadvantage which will likely lead to the closure of St Brendan’s Isle in the not too distant future.”

In the letter Moody cites 3,000 current customers of their business that could potentially be affected. Chambless said those people will not be automatically taken from the voter rolls, but their eligibility will be determined as it applies to the language in the new opinion.

“If you’re legally available to the voter registration roll then we need to make sure you’re on it,” Chambless said. “We’re going to take the time to investigate – manually – each and every record, and then based upon the information that they present [on a questionnaire], we’re going to make a determination on eligibility. If you’re not eligible to be on the rolls then we’re going to take necessary steps to remove you from the rolls, however if you are eligible to be on rolls we’re going to update your voter record and everything is fine.”

Previous opinions stated that legal residence, in regards to voter registration, is a place where someone “truly intends to reside and has made overt acts that demonstrate that intention.” Moody said they encourage their clients to establish residency through a list of 14 of these “overt acts” that were listed in the letter. Other opinions dating back decades, cite legal residency as simply being the place where someone receives “messages.” However, Chambless pointed out that these opinions are answers to different questions than the ones he had asked that resulted in the June 19 opinion from the state.

Moody listed four of their competitors, two of which are located in Okaloosa County where Paul Lux serves as supervisor of elections. Lux said that he is not aware of any registered voters in his county that would be affected by the new opinion.

“I did not see anything in the opinion that was immediately contrary to our own procedures,” Lux said. “We require our voters to have a primary physical presence and an intention to return. Because we have a large military presence, we cannot treat the RV people differently than the military people.

“If you have a Florida driver’s license, you didn’t get it from Italy, so at one point you must have applied within the state of Florida, which means you have had a primary physical presence and intent to return.”

Technically this interpretation does follow the order, which specifies that voters cannot register “without having a past or present physical presence and intent to establish permanent residency,” meaning that a person who comes into the county, establishes residency, and intends to, at some point, return to that county can register to vote. However, if they have not ever had their primary residence in the county, it is still clear that they are not a legal voter.

“What we were seeing is that people would become customers of St Brendan’s Isle electronically, then file a Declaration of Domicile electronically, then come here and register a boat or vehicle and then registered to vote,” Chambless said. “Where is the residency there? How does that tie you to the community?”

The 2018 order is the only one that specifically mentions mail forwarding services, as Chambless requested specificity regarding this type of situation, and is the most recent of the past orders in the books. Lux said he isn’t sure if that supersedes past rulings, but regardless his interpretation of the new order has not changed the practices in Okaloosa County.

“The advisory opinion has the effect of law, it’s binding upon me,” Chambless said. “As the supervisor of elections, I took an oath to uphold the laws. The citizens of Clay County have an expectation that their supervisor of elections is going to ensure that the voting rolls are as accurate as they can be.”

Moody and Loehr declined comment on this story and referred questions to their attorney.

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