What plows this voter landscape? Absentees
By ALICIA CALDWELL
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 4, 2000
For most of us, Election Day is on Tuesday. But a slice of Pinellas voters already have made their decisions.
A larger-than-ever chunk of the electorate, in Pinellas and across the state, has opted to vote absentee. It's a wave that's changing the art of politics.
It used to be that absentee voting was the backstop for those unable to get to the polls -- which meant you were traveling, bedridden or stationed abroad with the military.
Recent practice has changed that.
A couple of years ago, the Legislature modified elections laws on absentees, liberalizing the conditions under which people could get them.
But the U.S. Justice Department, charged with making sure such changes do not discriminate against certain groups of voters, blocked the law. The department found that witness requirements made it more difficult for minorities to vote absentee.
The parties, sensing a sea change in attitudes toward absentees, cranked up efforts to coax voters to consider voting absentee, said Clay Roberts, director of the state Division of Elections.
"If the voter feels comfortable signing that oath that they may not be able to go to the polls on Election Day, that's sufficient," Roberts said.
Now, unable can mean simply unwilling to go to the polls -- that you'd rather not use your lunch hour to vote.
Opinions on the evolution run the gamut: Some decry the loss of that communal experience of making your way to a church basement somewhere to punch your ballot and slip it into a box. Others say that some permutation of absentee voting is the future of democracy in a busy society.
In Pinellas, the supervisor of elections had mailed more than 50,000 absentees by the close of business Thursday, and more than 34,000 of those had been returned.
Given that the supervisor's office will mail absentees until Monday and will accept them until polls close Tuesday, it's logical that those numbers will increase. Joan Brock, deputy administrator for the Pinellas supervisor of elections, estimates at least 40,000 absentees will be returned, 15 percent more than in the last presidential election.
The supervisor mailed absentees to about 9 percent of the county's registered voters. Nearly 60 percent of those mailed went to registered Republicans, and Republicans have been slightly more diligent in returning their ballots.
It may surprise you that the supervisor's office keeps track of such things, but that's one of the reasons the texture of local politicking is changing.
Gabe Cazares, a former Clearwater mayor who is campaign coordinator for the North Pinellas Democratic Club, goes to the supervisor's office every morning for a list of voters who have requested absentees.
By noon, Cazares has mailed campaign material to each of those voters.
"It's a strategy this year and the reason, I think, is that the parties realize the law has made it easier to vote absentee," Cazares said. "I think it's a good process so long as people vote."
It's not just Pinellas. In Pasco County, 7 percent of voters had asked for absentee ballots. And in Hillsborough County, the number is 9 percent. Observers say absentee numbers are up across the state.
Prolific absentee balloting traditionally has been good news for Republicans, who have a tradition of cultivating the absentee vote.
This is not something that has gone unnoticed by Democrats. State Rep. Lois Frankel, a West Palm Beach Democrat coordinating House races statewide for her party, said Democrats have been working the absentee circuit. And they've been phoning and sending campaign mailers to Democrats to bring up the total turnout to counterbalance heavy Republican absentees.
"The question for the Democrats is will Democrats come out to the polls," she said. "And we can't answer that question until Election Day."
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