Early vote may be decisive in Florida

Nearly 700,000 have already cast ballots.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published January 25, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - Nearly 7 percent of Florida's 10-million registered voters have already cast their ballots for Tuesday's election, suggesting the vote may buck the recent trend of lackluster turnout.

Nearly 700,000 voters had voted early or returned absentee ballots as of Thursday. Just 786,000 voted in the uncontested 2004 presidential primary.

Fueling the turnout is a jumbled Republican presidential contest and Amendment 1, a statewide referendum on a pocketbook issue, property taxes. In fact, one in 10 of the early voters aren't affiliated with a major party and can't vote in the presidential primary.

But the surge is also forcing Republican presidential candidates to fine-tune their pitches as a sizable - and possibly decisive - chunk of votes will be cast before the polls open next Tuesday.

Republicans are outpacing Democrats in requesting and returning absentees - an area where the GOP historically has held an advantage in Florida. Democrats' absentee returns are proportionally higher than in past elections, and they hold a slight lead in early voting despite the statewide boycott by their party's presidential hopefuls.

So far 325,161 Republicans have cast early or absentee votes, compared to 295,932 Democrats.

"What you're seeing is Floridians standing up and saying, 'We're ready to be part of the process,'" said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who is not working for any presidential candidate. "It's good news for democracy."

The high number of early-bird voters means more people have made up their minds sooner. That may muffle the impact of a last-minute candidate gaffe or TV attack ad, but it also means people may have voted for Fred Thompson, not knowing he would drop out this week.

With polls showing a tight Republican race, candidates are "chasing" voters by obtaining daily lists of absentee requests and sending recorded phone calls to their homes.

"Having an established ground game that you're ready to activate when ballots are actually in people's hands is very important when you're in a tight race," said David Johnson, a veteran Florida Republican strategist who is not aligned with any presidential candidate.

Gov. Charlie Crist is using the same strategy in the property tax campaign, making automated "robo-calls" to unaffiliated voters who requested absentees and can vote only on the tax question.

"The system is broken, but you have the power to fix it," Crist's recorded voice says.

Secretary of State Kurt Browning, the state's chief elections official and a Crist appointee, says some election supervisors have told him the property tax issue is a stronger draw than the presidential race in part because Democrats have avoided campaigning in Florida.

"When you have a pocketbook issue on the ballot, it drives turnout," Browning said.

The candidate who may have the most to gain or lose from the stampede of early voting is Rudy Giuliani, whose make-or-break strategy in Florida has faltered dramatically. Polls show Florida a two-man race between John McCain and Mitt Romney.

Giuliani desperately needs a tidal wave of Republican votes from Palm Beach and Broward, large counties with big numbers of transplants from the New York metropolitan area.

The former New York mayor needs a lot more people like Jean Alexander, a retired teacher who voted early for Giuliani after attending a rally for him at a library in Coral Springs, which is an early voting site.

"He got a lot of people to root for him and then people just walked into the library when it was over and voted for him," Alexander said. "It was very convenient."

At a rally inside a private jet hangar in Fort Lauderdale, Mike Huckabee asked how many people had voted early, and about half of the crowd of 200 raised their hands.

"I'm especially happy, because nothing I say tonight can cause me to lose your vote," he said.

Times staff writers Jennifer Liberto, Nicole Hutcheson and Jared Leone contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

Early voting is open today and Saturday. To vote early, visit a polling place listed with a picture and signature ID. If you forget your ID, you can cast a provisional ballot.


Open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

- Hernando County Government Center, 20 N Main St., Room 165, Brooksville

- Forest Oaks Government Center, 7443 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill

More information: hernandovotes.com or (352) 754-4125


Open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

- County Center, 601 E Kennedy Blvd., 16th floor

- Robert L. Gilder Elections Service Center, 2514 N Falkenburg Road

- City Hall, 302 W Reynolds St., Plant City

Open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

- College Hill Branch Library, 2607 E Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

- Bloomingdale Regional Public Library, 1906 Bloomingdale Ave.

- Upper Tampa Bay Regional Public Library, 11211 Countryway Blvd.

- Jan Kaminis Platt Regional Library, 3910 S Manhattan Ave.

- Southshore Regional Library, 15816 Beth Shields Way

- Temple Terrace Public Library, 202 Bullard Parkway

- Riverview Branch Library, 10509 Riverview Drive

- West Tampa Branch Library, 2312 W Union St.

- New Tampa Regional Library, 10001 Cross Creek Blvd.

- Jimmie B. Keel Regional Library, 2902 W Bearss Ave.

More information: votehillsborough.org or (813) 744-5900


Friday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

- East Pasco Government Center, 14236 Sixth St., Dade City

- David "Hap" Clark Professional Center, 4111 Land O' Lakes Blvd., Room 105, Land O' Lakes

- Hudson Regional Library, 8012 Library Road, Hudson

- New River Branch Library, 34043 SR 54, Zephyrhills

- West Pasco Government Center, 7530 Little Road, Suite 110, New Port Richey

- Village Market of Wesley Chapel, 5325 Village Market, Wesley Chapel

- South Holiday Branch Library, 4649 Mile Stretch Drive, Holiday

More information: pascovotes.com or 1-800-851-8754


Open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

- Election Service Center, Starkey Lakes Corporate Center, 13001 Starkey Road, Largo

- Pinellas Courthouse, 315 Court St., Room 117, Clearwater

- County Building, 501 First Ave. N, St. Petersburg

More information: votepinellas.com or (727) 464-6108


Early voting

Number of voters in the Tampa Bay area through noon Thursday

Hernando: 4,928

Hillsborough: 29,504

Pasco: 7,329

Pinellas: 6,214

Source: State Division of Elections