CLEARWATER — City residents who vote by mail will find a ballot for the next city election in their mailboxes soon, even though the election is still almost a month away.
On Tuesday the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office began mailing ballots to voters who requested them.
Mail voters could choose the next mayor and decide the fate of three referendum questions even before the Jan. 31 election. In the 2010 city election, mail votes overtook turnout at polling places, with three of every four ballots coming with a stamp.
Voters will choose whether Vice Mayor George Cretekos or political newcomer Christine Marketos-Cuomo will succeed term-limited Mayor Frank Hibbard. The new mayor will be sworn in Feb. 13.
Two other council seats, to be vacated next month by Cretekos and term-limited member John Doran, will be filled without a vote by Doreen DiPolito and Jay Polglaze, who ran unopposed.
Voters will also decide whether to extend term limits for City Council members from two four-year terms to three.
The Charter Review Committee, a volunteer board that suggests changes to the Clearwater charter, recommended last year that voters abolish council term limits. Doubting the referendum would pass, the City Council instead proposed changing term limits from eight years to 12. Voters will have the final say.
Voters also will decide two other referendums: whether the city must publish a notice that the annual city audit is available, and whether to conduct reviews of the city charter every six years instead of the current five years.
Mail voting has grown increasingly important in city elections over the last decade: In 2001, only 10 percent of city votes came in the mail.
But it has done little to encourage more voting. In 2010, the city's 13 percent turnout was the worst in the county. In 2001, turnout was nearly 20 percent.
A push to extend council terms and move the regular March city elections to November, when higher offices are elected and turnout is greater, was dropped last summer due to public criticism.
Jan. 31 is also the date for the Republican presidential primary. In 2007, the City Council voted to cut costs by combining city elections with the presidential primaries, scheduling certain elections in January instead of March. Though only Republicans will get to make presidential choices on Jan. 31, registered Clearwater residents of any party or no party can vote on the city ballot issues.
Voters who want to cast their ballots in person but aren't available on Jan. 31 can vote early at any Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office from Jan. 21-28.
Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or firstname.lastname@example.org.