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© St. Petersburg Times, published March 15, 2000
Florida elections officials threw a $6-million party Tuesday, and almost nobody came.
With the presidential nominations all but locked up and little else on their ballots, Floridians stayed away from the polls in droves. It was the lowest turnout for a presidential primary in Florida history -- just 18 percent.
Put another way, the state of Florida spent about $5 for every voter who showed up. And that's not counting what each county spent running the elections.
"The competition evaporated, and so did the voters," said Pam Iorio, elections supervisor for Hillsborough County, where roughly 16 percent of registered voters showed up.
In Pinellas County, turnout was just as abysmal -- 17 percent -- even though several communities had their own elections.
Florida started holding presidential preference primaries in 1972, when 58 percent of eligible voters showed. Until Tuesday, the record low turnout was 29 percent, in 1996.
Prospective voters across the state grumbled Tuesday about the pointlessness of voting when the party nominees were no longer in question.
Jim McNicholas, a 74-year-old retiree from Spring Hill and a registered Democrat, saw no reason to vote when Al Gore already had the nomination sewn up.
"He's in now anyway," McNicholas said. "What they should do is have all the primaries on the same day."
Other voters suggested Florida schedule an earlier presidential primary next time to ensure the fourth biggest state plays a greater role in the contests.
Some state legislators agree, and on Tuesday the House Committee On Election Reform unanimously supported a measure to move up the next presidential primary by about six weeks to the final Tuesday in January. The bill must be approved by the House, Senate and the governor.
Across the Tampa Bay area Tuesday, the scene was similar at lonely precincts. Poll workers sat quietly chatting, thumbing through magazines and filling in crossword puzzles while waiting for the occasional voter to walk in.
"There's no decision to make on the presidential candidates," said poll clerk Marie Singer, a Largo resident who has worked in county polling places for the past 18 years. "So people aren't be coming out. I don't think it's okay."
The media may play a part in the apathy, Singer and other poll workers suggested.
"Every time you turn on the radio they're talking about how there's going to be light turnout. So people will say why should I go to the polls?" Singer said. The media, she said, "may be turning their heads a little."
In most places, only the most die-hard voters bothered showing.
"It's my civic duty and privilege to vote," said 68-year-old Willie Mae Wise of Inverness. Mrs. Wise, a Republican, said she never considered passing on this primary, even though George W. Bush has all but locked up her party's nomination.
Mrs. Wise's husband, Albert, was even more adamant.
"I spent four years with Uncle Sam in the South Pacific during World War II. I stood there in the trenches for my right to vote. That's how I feel about it," said Albert Wise, 73, who was a radar mechanic with the Air Force.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.