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    Ballot is long; lines may be, too

    By ALICIA CALDWELL

    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 7, 2000


    Pinellas voters are expected to make a strong showing at the polls today, keeping in step with statewide predictions that voters will turn out in near-record numbers.

    But Florida is bucking a national trend. Researchers predict that half the country's eligible voters, turned off by negative campaigning and placated by peace and prosperity, will stay home.

    Turnout likely will be higher in Florida, Michigan, Missouri and Washington -- swing states that have been targeted by both presidential candidates, researchers say.

    Political observers estimate Pinellas turnout will be somewhere in the 60 percent to 75 percent range, which would be a good showing but not a record. The expected heavy traffic at polls prompted the county's supervisor of elections to warn that there may be lines at times as voters navigate the lengthy ballot.

    "The interest in this campaign is just phenomenal," said Paul Bedinghaus, Pinellas Republican Party chairman, who predicts a voter turnout percentage in the mid to high 70s.

    The 1992 presidential candidacy of independent Ross Perot is widely credited with eliciting an 85 percent voter turnout in Pinellas, which is the largest percentage of voters who have gone to polls in the past 36 years, said Joan Brock, Pinellas elections deputy administrator.

    However, the dynamics of voter participation have changed since then. The massive registration of voters after the so-called motor voter law was enacted in 1995 worked to dilute voter participation.

    The legislation, which made it much easier to register, has added to the rolls large numbers of voters who typically do not go to the polls, said Deborah Clark, Pinellas elections supervisor.

    "What we're seeing and what other counties are seeing is a 10 percent inflation of the file," Clark said. "These new voters aren't necessarily getting to the polls. It changed the whole complexion."

    An indicator that would counterbalance the effect of the motor voter law is the high number of absentee ballots that have been requested and returned, Clark said. High absentees typically forecast a big Election Day turnout.

    Clark's office has distributed 52,000 absentee ballots, 80 percent of which have been returned, Clark said. The number of absentees issued represents 9 percent of the county's registered voters.

    "That's an exceptionally high number of absentee ballots," Clark said.

    Clark predicted a turnout in the 65 percent to 75 percent range. The lengthy ballot -- which includes races for state Cabinet positions, state legislative seats, County Commission races, judicial retention questions, referendums and a state constitutional amendment -- will take a while for voters to complete, Clark said.

    "It's going to be heavy turnout so there may be lines," she said. "Hopefully, enough voters will study the sample ballot we mailed them, mark it and take it with them. That'll make it go quicker."

    Throughout the Tampa Bay area, predictions of heavy voter turnout were commonplace. In Hillsborough County, about 75 percent of voters are expected to go to the polls.

    In Hernando, Supervisor of Elections Ann Mau said she hoped for a 65 percent to 70 percent turnout. More than 9,400 Hernando voters received absentee ballots, of which more than 7,000 had been returned by Friday.

    In Citrus, more than 9,000 voters already had cast absentee ballots by Monday afternoon. And in Pasco County, Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning said he expected a 75 percent to 78 percent turnout. He said the higher than normal numbers are being fueled by the tight race for president.

    Clearwater-based political consultant Jack Hebert said while everyone is talking about how the close presidential race has drawn the candidates to the area and fueled interest in the election, one cannot discount the effect of some of the so-called down ballot races.

    Hard-fought races for state House seats, particularly those representing south Pinellas districts, will bring voters to the polls as well, he said.

    "A lot of politics is local," Hebert said.

    Doug Jamerson, a former education commissioner who is working on the Democrats' coordinated campaign to get out the vote, said he expected African-American voters in southern Pinellas to be motivated to vote by the state Senate District 21 race. The district encompasses parts of Tampa and St. Petersburg.

    The race pits state Rep. Les Miller, a Tampa Democrat, against state Rep. Rudy Bradley, a St. Petersburg Republican who had been a Democrat until last year. Jamerson, a Democrat, was eliminated from the race in September's primary.

    "There are a lot of folks who I've talked to who want to let Mr. Bradley know how they feel about his performance," Jamerson said.

    Bob Shirer, vice chairman of the Pinellas Democratic Executive Committee, said Monday that he had spent much of the day setting up rides to the polls for people who need them, and arranging for absentee ballots for people who need them.

    He said he expected a turnout between 65 percent and 80 percent.

    "Obviously, I'm hoping for a big turnout," said Shirer. "Big turnouts favor Democrats. All the indicators I've seen say it's going to be a sizable turnout. How sizable, that's the question."

    - Times staff writers Matthew Waite, Jim Ross, Barbara Behrendt and Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires.

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