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    On North Suncoast, polls likely to be busy


    © St. Petersburg Times, published November 7, 2000

    North Suncoast 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.

    However, Florida is bucking a national trend. Researchers predict about 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.

    Elections supervisors in North Suncoast counties predicted turnout in the 65 to 75 percent range. In Hillsborough County, a 75 percent turnout is expected.

    Political observers in Pinellas County estimate turnout will be somewhere in the 60 to 75 percent range, which would be a good showing but not a record. The Pinellas elections supervisor warned Monday 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 bid of Reform Party candidate Ross Perot is widely credited with producing 85 percent voter turnout in Pinellas -- the largest percentage of voters who have gone to polls in the last 36 years, said Joan Brock, Pinellas elections deputy administrator.

    But 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 do not typically vote, 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 motor voter is the high number of absentee ballots that have been requested and returned, Clark said. High numbers of 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 Pinellas' registered voters.

    In Citrus County, more than 9,000 voters already had cast ballots by Monday afternoon. Some voted absentee through the mail while others stopped by elections offices to cast ballots.

    In Pasco County, Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning said he expected that 75 to 78 percent of the county's 221,902 voters would go to the polls. He said the higher than normal numbers are being fueled by the tight race for president.

    In Hernando County, voter turnout usually exceeds state and national averages, said Supervisor of Elections Ann Mau.

    "We don't have an incumbent president, so it's a wide-open election, and we are one of the key states in terms of our electoral votes," Mau said. "I believe Hernando County people are very discriminating in casting their votes."

    Mau estimated 65 to 70 percent of the county's 95,549 voters would vote. More than 9,400 people received absentee ballots, of which more than 7,000 had been returned by Friday.

    Ted Williams, the former Pasco property appraiser who has been active in county Democratic politics, said reports of high absentee returns in Hernando and Pasco were harbingers of high turnout in general. Though absentees traditionally have favored Republicans, he said he wasn't sure how that vote would fall.

    "The Republicans have done a very good job over the years in getting out the absentees," Williams said. "The Democrats have been paying attention and they've been working on that."

    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.

    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 Pinellas turnout between 65 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 sizeable turnout. How sizeable, that's the question."

    - Staff writers Matthew Waite, Jim Ross, Barbara Behrendt, Jeffrey S. Solochek and David Karp contributed to this report, which also contains information from the Times wires.

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