tampabay.com

Voter turnout is heaviest in decades

Tuesday's primary draws 41.3 percent of the state's voters; Tampa's turnout lags.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO and CONNIE HUMBURG, Times Staff Writers
Published January 31, 2008


TALLAHASSEE -- For the first time in 20 years, a whopping 41.3 percent of Florida voters went to the polls to vote in a presidential primary.

Tuesday's election marked Florida's busiest primary since 43 percent of voters turned out in 1988, when Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis were on the ballot.

Both major parties shattered recent turnout marks, with Republicans drawing 50 percent of registered voters and Democrats drawing 41.6 percent.

Party officials credited the bevy of candidates and excitement of the early primary contest for driving voters to the polls.

But Secretary of State Kurt Browning, a Gov. Charlie Crist appointee who fought hard for the property tax amendment, said the ballot initiative was the biggest driver.

Browning said Lee County turned out the largest percentage of Floridians at 57 percent, with four of five voters favoring the tax amendment.

Lee County Property Appraiser Ken Wilkinson said voters turned out there because they are "particularly well versed" in property tax language. More than half of all registered voters in Sumter, Sarasota and Brevard counties also flocked to the polls.

"You put a pocketbook issue on the ballot and you can count on people being at the polls," said Browning, who noted several smaller counties also had strong turnouts, with most voting against the amendment.

Democratic Party officials say Democrats showed up mostly because of the fervor over presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards, even though none of them campaigned in Florida.

"I clearly believe a lot of this was driven by the overall message of change," said Karen Thurman, head of the Florida Democratic Party.

Statewide, Republican voters totaled 1.9-million, and Democrats reached 1.7-million.

In the Tampa Bay area, Hernando County topped the turnout list with 45.4 percent of registered voters. Pinellas County met the state average at 41.3 percent. Below the state average were Pasco County at 40 percent and Hillsborough with 37.2 percent.

In raw votes, Pinellas Republicans came in second place, with 117,219, compared with 176,098 in Miami-Dade, which has far more Republicans, said Pinellas Republican Party chairman Tony DiMatteo.

"The governor got out the vote here," said DiMatteo, citing the importance of both the ballot initiative and Crist's endorsement of Sen. John McCain. "It was historic."

Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer credited Crist with higher turnout throughout the state.

"People wanted to cut their property taxes, and they had confidence and respect for Gov. Crist in supporting McCain," he said.

Leaders of the pack

Nearly four out of 10 Florida voters cast ballots in Tuesday's election, thanks to the pocketbook property tax issue and heated presidential primary races. But in some counties, participation was far higher. Four counties: Lee, Sumter, Brevard and Sarasota each saw more than one in two voters turn out.