County fights state trend, discourages early voting
Pinellas' supervisor prefers absentee ballots.
By WILL VAN SANT, Times Staff Writer
Published February 8, 2008
A record-setting million-plus Floridians voted early or cast absentee ballots in advance of last week's presidential preference primary, but Pinellas County's contribution was mixed.
The number of early votes cast in Pinellas slipped from two years ago, while the number of voters who mailed in absentee ballots surged.
Those results are by design. Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark favors absentee over early voting.
"Early voting does not increase voter turnout," Clark said. "But it does significantly increase election costs. I think we need to focus on voting by mail."
Between the 2006 primary and this year's, the number of early votes cast in Pinellas dropped 3.5 percent. By comparison, early voting in Pasco, Hillsborough, Orange and Duval counties grew between 85 percent and 191 percent.
Overall, voter turnout in Pinellas last week was 41 percent, the same as turnout statewide.
The difference? Pinellas is the only county of the five to reduce the number of early voting locations from double to single digits. In the 2006 primary, there were 11 early voting sites, compared to three last week.
In contrast, Hillsborough had 13 early voting sites last week, down from a high of 20. Pasco had seven, the same as two years ago.
Early voting began in 2004, and the number of locations in Pinellas gradually increased. Officials say they quickly realized the marginal impact early voting has on overall turnout does not justify the costs involved.
Since the general election in 2006, early voting has been offered only at the supervisor of elections' three offices in Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Largo, as is required by law.
At the time the change was made, the office was under pressure from state lawmakers to cut spending. Also in 2006, state lawmakers made absentee voting easier by removing a requirement that voters document an inability to make it to the polls before getting an absentee ballot.
Officials say the reduction in early voting sites saved about $500,000.
With the passage of Amendment 1 last week, local governments are again looking to restrain spending, and it's unlikely the number of early voting locations will expand anytime soon.
As an alternative to early voting, election officials have pushed the use of absentee ballots at polling locations and during presentations to civic groups. New voters or those updating their information at the elections office also have gotten the absentee voting plug. From the 2006 primary to last week's, Pinellas saw the number of absentee ballots cast grow by 91 percent.
That's more than double the increase seen in Hillsborough and Pasco counties, but far from the 181 percent seen in Duval County or the 126 percent seen in Orange County.
Still, Clark is pleased with the growth in absentees and points to their contribution to last week's overall voter turnout, the largest in Pinellas for a presidential preference primary since 1976.
"We deliberately focused our efforts on voting by mail and it paid off," Clark said. "Voting by mail is a lot more cost-effective than early voting locations."
Not only does absentee voting save money, Clark said, but it also offers maximum convenience and a consistent procedure at a time when voting technology is in flux.
Clark has been criticized for cutting back on early voting, particularly by residents of North Pinellas who resent having to drive to the Clearwater Courthouse, the nearest site, to take advantage of the option. Nearly a third of the county's residents live north of Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater.
Oldsmar City Council member Greg Rublee, a Democrat challenging Republican Clark for the job of supervisor this year, said he understands the need to save money, but supports a modest increase in the number of early voting locations.
"I'm not suggesting we go back to 11 sites, but we do have to have some North County locations," Rublee said. "Some people just can't or won't do things by mail."
Local party leaders support the direction Clark has taken. Tony DiMatteo, who heads the Pinellas GOP, said he cares little how ballots are cast, so long as his people vote. And he said absentee voting is more economical than early voting.
Toni Molinaro, who leads Pinellas Democrats, said state party leaders have pushed absentee voting for good reason. She knows that not having nearby access to an early voting site frustrates some people, but said overall, absentees make more sense.
"It's just a convenient and intelligent way to vote," Molinaro said. "You have time to think about what you are doing and you can mail it back or drop it off. And you don't have to stand in line."
Will Van Sant can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 445-4166.
Early voting vs. absentee voting
Sources: Supervisor of Elections Offices, State Legislatures Office of Economic and Demographic Research.