Early voters have discovered what others will learn on Election Day: The ballot for the Nov. 2 election is a bear. Some voters are taking 20 minutes or more to read and complete their ballots, leading to long lines even for those taking advantage of the two-week early voting period.
That portends long, slow lines and voter confusion on Election Day - unless all voters do their homework about the ballot issues before they go to the polls.
The presidential election has so dominated this election season that some voters may have forgotten or be unaware that they also will face decisions on U.S. and Florida Senate and House candidates, judges, county commissioners, county clerk of court, county sheriff, eight lengthy amendments to the Florida Constitution, five amendments to the Pinellas County charter, and a half-mill increase in the local school tax.
Depending on where voters live in Pinellas County, they may also find some local issues on their ballots. For example, Oldsmar and Largo voters will be asked to vote "yes" or "no" on amendments to their city charters. Tarpon Springs voters will decide whether the city should buy a piece of land for ballfields. Indian Rocks Beach voters will find an incredible 17 - count 'em, 17 - charter amendments on their ballot. St. Petersburg residents face five referendum questions. Voters in a number of fire districts will be choosing fire commissioners or deciding funding issues. South Pasadena will choose a city commissioner.
Voters who want to educate themselves before they vote should start with a careful reading of the sample ballot, which is produced by the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office. There are at least two ways to get a look at it:
* Go to www.votepinellas.com to get the election supervisor's Web page. Under the heading "What's New" in the middle of the page, click on the line for the official sample ballot. You can scroll through the ballot at your leisure and take all the time you need to read the descriptions of the constitutional amendments. If you aren't sure whether your ballot on Election Day will include a race you see on the sample ballot, check your voter registration card. It will list your congressional, legislative and County Commission districts.
* If you don't have a computer, watch your mail for a copy of the sample ballot. The elections office is mailing more than 300,000 of them to registered households.
Figuring out what the ballot questions mean can be a lot tougher than just reading them. What should you do if you still have questions about the ballot issues?
Getting answers can be tough, as one family of conscientious voters complained in a call to me this month. They had read the sample ballot, then called county and state government offices to ask for answers to some questions. But they kept getting transferred or found that the government employees they spoke with wouldn't help them because of concerns about violating rules against participation in political activities.
The best way to keep track of the issues that will show up on the ballot in any election year is to read the newspaper regularly. As each Election Day draws closer, the newspaper will carry more information designed to help readers prepare themselves to vote. It is one of our most important duties as the American press.
But what can you do now if you haven't kept up, or if you still find yourself flummoxed by ballot language? There is hope. Here are some ideas:
* Go to the Times Web site at www.sptimes.com and use the search function to look for stories or editorials on the ballot issues that concern you.
* Go to www.votesmartflorida.org for a voter guide to the constitutional amendments. It contains a plain-English explanation of each of the proposed constitutional amendments and who sponsored them, and it names the most vocal opponents and proponents along with an explanation of their positions.
* Go to the county supervisor of elections Web site at www.votepinellas.com Look in the blue box down the left side of the screen for this subhead: "Candidates and Questions on Nov. 2 General Election Ballot." Click on that line, and you will see a representation of the ballot questions, along with a fuller explanation of some items. For example, you can read about the cost impacts of the constitutional amendments.
* Call your elected representatives at the state, county or city level and ask them to answer your questions about their relevant items on the ballot. It is important to call elected officials, who do not have the same concerns as appointed government employees about discussing a political issue with you.
So, voters, get busy and start boning up. The people behind you in line at the polling place will be grateful you did.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for North Pinellas editions of the Times. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com