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City weighs mail-in ballot

Clearwater wants to improve voter participation in a referendum that will determine waterfront development.

By CHRISTINA HEADRICK

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 13, 2000


CLEARWATER -- It has never been done in Pinellas County before, but Clearwater staff members are researching what would be the county's first mail-in election this fall.

City officials figure that mailing a ballot to the homes of the city's 61,352 registered voters could drastically improve abysmal voter participation.

"Most people are harried," Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst said. "They're running in six different directions at once, and many don't have a chance to vote.

"A mail-in (election) makes sense if it's something that can be done relatively easily and won't cost (the city) a whole lot more money."

But the real reasons for the change go beyond convenience.

The initial effort is being considered mainly to help win referendum approval for a controversial project for the city's downtown waterfront, a plan that could include a movie theater and shopping strip.

A referendum must be held under the city charter's rules to redevelop the protected waterfront lands. Referendums are also required for many other issues, including city pension plan changes and building a new library.

The fewer people who vote in the referendum, the greater the chance that well-organized groups can sway the election's results, said Tampa Bay area political consultant Mary Repper.

"There's no doubt that smaller turnouts can be manipulated by small interest groups more easily," Repper said. "It certainly can subvert the whole purpose of what an election is all about."

In the case of the Clearwater waterfront project, there is already an organized and well-financed opposition group led by a dozen former city commissioners, called Save the Bayfront, which opposes commercial development of the city's 27 acres of land overlooking Clearwater Harbor. The land includes Coachman Park, the library, Harborview Center, City Hall and parking.

Save the Bayfront is critical of the city's motives in investigating a mail ballot.

"I think it will give the people pushing for development of the bayfront a chance to get the city to pay for influencing the vote for them," said Anne Garris, the group's spokeswoman. "If people cared enough, they will get out to vote in a regular election."

At a cost of about $1 per voter -- the same as it costs now for an absentee voter mail ballot -- a mail election would probably be more expensive than the $10,000 to $50,000 it costs for a routine election, according to city estimates.

State law has allowed mail elections for the past decade, although strictly for referendum issues and not candidates. About 17 counties have organized them, with voter participation of greater than 50 percent being common, according to the state's Division of Elections.

But county officials here don't want to try a mail ballot this year. Elections officials say that they would have to buy new computer software and work out the system of handling such ballots for the first time.

As a check against voter fraud, that usually means comparing the validity of signatures on ballots with signatures on electronic files.

But elections workers are reluctant to shoulder more work in a presidential election year, when they have 2,000 poll workers to train and additional demands with primary elections, said deputy elections administrator Joan Brock.

City officials, however, want a referendum on downtown development done this year. City commissioners are set to pick a real estate developer for the city's land this week.

City officials originally wanted to put a question on the ballot of this November's presidential elections. Generally, presidential election turnouts are double to triple the turnout in city elections, where turnouts of 8 percent to 20 percent of registered voters are common.

However, Dorothy Ruggles, the county's election supervisor, has already told City Manager Mike Roberto that the November ballot will be too full of federal, state and county elections to squeeze in a city referendum question.

Roberto and other city officials don't want to take no for an answer. They do not want to have an under-attended city referendum on their own.

So they have been brainstorming what they could do to increase voter turnout for the critical downtown project referendum -- such as holding a mail ballot election.

"We believe that we want to have the maximum number of people decide on the redevelopment of Clearwater," said Roberto, who denied that there are any political implications to doing it by mail.

Pros

Greater participation, with over 50 percent common

No poll workers to train and pay

Ballot tabulation is over sooner

No polling places to reserve

Cons

Misses people with incorrect addresses registered

Mailing costs can make election more expensive

Must deal with undelivered ballots and requests for replacement ballots

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