Sunday, November 18, 2018
Education

Voters flocked to Tuesday’s primary, then skipped parts of the ballot. What does that mean for November?

Election supervisors across the Tampa Bay area cheered a higher-than-expected voter turnout for Tuesday’s primary.

Participation ranged from nearly 25 percent in Pasco County to just over 31 percent in Pinellas. That was 6 to 15 points higher than the typical turnout for a local primary contest in recent years. In Pinellas, you would have to go back to 1978 to find a higher primary turnout.

But within those positive numbers is a note of concern: The farther down the ballot voters went, the less likely they were to make a choice.

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That so-called "undervote" in school board races reached close to 15 percent in Pasco and 13 percent in Pinellas. Hernando and Hillsborough counties saw 7 to 8 percent of voters leave those races blank.

That so-called "undervote" in school board races reached close to 15 percent in Pasco and 13 percent in Pinellas. Hernando and Hillsborough counties saw 7 to 8 percent of voters leave those races blank.

The numbers were even worse in the judicial races.

"Sadly, it’s very common, ballot fatigue," said Brian Corley, Pasco’s election supervisor. "You’ll see it with the amendments in November."

Corley was referring to the 13 proposed constitutional amendments slated to appear on the bottom of the Nov. 6 ballot. At least three of those have been removed as misleading in circuit court, with the state Supreme Court set to hear arguments Wednesday on two appeals.

Those court challenges emerged in part because Constitution Revision Commission members, concerned that a lengthy ballot would create either disinterest or negativity, packaged ideas together under umbrella topics such as education for Amendment 8. That “bundling” became part of the dispute.

Concerns over voters losing interest are warranted, said Craig Latimer, the Hillsborough elections supervisor and vice president of the state supervisors association.

He pointed to the 2012 general election, which featured a dozen proposed amendments, in addition to one down-ballot School Board race.

More than 543,000 Hillsborough residents voted for president, the first item on the ballot that year. By the time they got down to the amendments, that number had dropped as low as 468,000.

Just fewer than 429,000 voters weighed in on the School Board race.

"It's not something new," Latimer said. "A fewer amount of people can make the decisions."

Yet the issues and races that they’re skipping carry significant weight.

County judges decide peoples’ futures. School board members control the direction of children’s education. Constitutional amendments determine how the government operates.

In several instances on Tuesday, candidates won without moving to a general election after having received votes from just a fraction of the electorate.

"Undervotes have consequences," Corley said. "You literally are letting someone else choose for you."

That might not be such a bad thing, some Tampa Bay area residents suggested.

After learning of numbers of ballots left blank for certain races, several chimed in on social media that in an ideal situation, voters would take the time to research issues and candidates before voting.

That's not always the case.

"Better to not vote than to cast a vote based on name recognition or who had the most signs," wrote Pasco County resident Jim Stanley, a frequent critic of his local School Board.

Andrea Messina, Florida School Boards Association executive director, observed that many voters don’t look to nonpartisan races — either because they’re party loyalists or they don’t have enough information.

"They don’t rely so much on a local single news source any more, and candidates are having trouble penetrating to voters," said Messina, a former three-term Charlotte County School Board member. 

RELATED: Who votes in school board elections? Not everyone, that’s for sure.

Latimer agreed, noting some Hillsborough County leaders are fighting an initiative to make local constitutional officer races nonpartisan, in part to avoid the undervote situation that regularly occurs as voters ignore such campaigns. The battle over that proposal is currently in the courts.

The scenario frustrated Corley, who regularly talks to students and jury pools about the importance of participating in every part of the election process, right down to the amendments.

He used the 2000 presidential election as his point of reference.

That year, George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in Florida by 537 votes, swinging the election to Bush. In Pasco, 1,776 voters did not pick any candidate in the presidential race.

"Just Pasco County alone could have impacted the presidential contest. And that’s only Pasco," Corley said. "Certainly they have that right. But they have implications."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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