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The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Early voting starts Monday in Hillsborough County for presidential preference primary



Hillsborough County voters can get a jump on most others in Florida in casting ballots for the Republican presidential preference primary, beyond the traditional absentee ballot approach. Early voting begins Monday. Yes, the same day as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It continues for two weeks after that, leading up to the Jan. 31 primary date.

You may recall that the legislature last year passed changes to the elections law restricting the number of days of early voting while allowing extended hours on the days early voting does take place. However, Hillsborough County is one of five in Florida under U.S. Justice Department supervision, requiring federal approval of changes to how elections are conducted to ensure they don't infringe on minority voting rights. So Hillsborough is operating under the old rules, for now. Early voting in Pinellas, for instance, won't start until Jan. 21.

 U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has expressed concern that changes to elections laws in several states, including Florida, may serve to hinder voters' ability to register and cast ballots. So outgoing Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning has asked a three-judge panel in Washington D.C. to review Florida's elections law changes, but that won't happen until after the primary.

"That's the reason we're voting early and Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Polk counties around us are not able to vote early yet" other than through absentee ballots, said Earl Lennard, Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections.

Justice already has blessed more mundane aspects of Florida's elections changes, but there are four components it has yet to pre-clear: Reducing the number of early voting days from 14 to eight while still allowing up to 96 hours total of early voting; requiring third-party groups that collect voter registration forms to submit them within 48 hours or face fines; reducing the expiration date of petition signatures on voter initiatives from four years to two; and requiring voters who attempt to change their address on election day, if they've moved from one Florida County to another, to submit a provisional ballot.

Voters in Hillsborough County can still change their addresses on election day and cast a regular ballot.

A couple of important details to keep in mind. Florida is a closed primary state. So only Republicans can vote as the Democrat part of the contest is effectively decided. There is one important exception. In Temple Terrace, there is also a referendum on whether that city's government should be allowed to waive property taxes for new and expanding business as a job-creating incentive. All voters, Democrats, Republicans and others, can vote on that issue.

Hillsborough County has 15 early voting sites. Their hours vary slightly from location to location, but generally are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. when at libraries and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at other government buildings.

Of course, many Florida residents have already cast ballots by voting absentee, well in advance of even the South Carolina primary. In Hillsborough County, 10,899 people have requested absentee ballots and 2,075 have already been returned.


[Last modified: Thursday, January 12, 2012 5:27pm]


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