BROOKSVILLE — Florida's election reform law will likely do in Hernando County exactly what critics feared: cause a reduction in the total number of early voting hours.
Passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott in May, the law allows elections supervisors to offer the same number of early voting hours as before — 96 — but over the course of eight days instead of 14.
That is highly unlikely to happen here, given budget constraints, Supervisor of Elections Annie Williams said.
"I'd have to be open 12 hours a day, and that would mean overtime for all of my staff," Williams said.
That's a tall order when each budget cycle brings tension between Williams and a County Commission demanding cuts to her budget. Most likely, early voting hours will be cut by one third in Hernando.
Before the changes to the law, statutes required that early voting begin 15 days before and end two days prior to an election — 14 days overall. Supervisors were required to provide eight hours of early voting during weekdays sometime between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and eight hours during each of two weekends.
Under the new law, early voting must be available six hours a day for eight days, or a minimum total of 48 hours, and can be available for up to 12 hours a day for eight days, or 96 hours.
In other words, local elections supervisors have the ability to cut the number of early voting hours in half, but must increase the number of hours of early voting on weekends from 16 to 18 hours.
In the past, Williams has set the early voting hours and kept them the same regardless of the election. But given the changes in the law, and because the demand for early voting depends on the nature of the election and the size of the county, Williams and other Florida elections supervisors reached by the Times said their approach to early voting will vary according to the election.
For an election like the upcoming presidential primary, tentatively set for Jan. 31, fewer early voting hours isn't as much of a concern, supervisors said. Only one party is participating in that election, and primaries don't draw as many voters.
Turnout numbers — and the demand for early voting — will climb significantly for the 2012 general election, when voters pick a president and decide on a host of state and local candidates.
"I think you're going to have a lot of supervisors using that as the high-water mark," said David Stafford, elections supervisor in Escambia County and president of the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. "If they get to 96 (hours), that would occur at the presidential general election."
In previous elections, Williams provided the required 96 hours at her two offices in Brooksville and Spring Hill by offering the option from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. during each of the 14 days. The regular office hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, so that required overtime for weekend hours.
The tentative plan in Hernando for the presidential preference primary and the primary in August is to offer early voting for the same hours during the week, Williams said. She hasn't decided on the weekend hours, but expects to offer a total of at least 64 hours of early voting.
Early voting has become increasingly popular in Hernando. In the 2008 presidential general election, a little more than 23,000 voters — or 18 percent of the total turnout — took advantage of the option.
Still, the demand here doesn't justify 96 hours, even for a presidential election, said Elizabeth Townsend, director of operations for the elections office.
"I don't believe it has gone up enough to warrant 12 hours a day," Townsend said.
Other counties plan to shoot for the 96 hours during the general election.
For the presidential preference primary, the four Citrus County early voting sites will probably be open eight hours a day, or 64 hours total, elections Supervisor Susan Gill said. For the presidential general election, though, Gill expects to keep the sites open for 12 hours, running two shifts to minimize overtime costs.
Still, the expense is a concern, she said.
"When push comes to shove, it can become a budget issue," Gill said.
Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley also said he will likely offer 96 hours for the general election. The cost for that election will be on the 2012-13 budget, but the financial worries will remain, given predictions about county finances, Corley said.
"It's certainly not getting any better," he said.
The changes to early voting were part of a sweeping reform bill that also requires some voters who have moved to cast provisional ballots, tightens the time for third-party groups to submit voter registration forms and reduces the time that signatures on citizen-led ballot initiatives are valid.
Elections supervisors did not ask for any of the new provisions, Stafford noted, and the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections expressed concern about the changes to early voting, given the increased demand in Florida. The only request that supervisors made of lawmakers — more flexibility in the options for early voting sites — was not included in the law.
Supporters of the law said the measures are meant to address voter fraud. Secretary of State Kurt Browning praised the early voting changes as a way to offer elections supervisors more flexibility.
Critics call it a blatant ploy by Republicans to harm Democrats' chances in 2012. Early voting has been more popular among Democrats and is widely credited with helping President Obama win Florida in 2008.
Any measure that cuts the number of early voting hours is a step backward, said Steve Zeledon, chairman of the Hernando County Democratic Executive Committee. The motive for doing so, he said, makes it even worse.
"The whole point of this thing is to manipulate the electorate," Zeledon said. "That is not American. It's putting party before country, and it's despicable."
That's a conspiracy theory without merit, said Blaise Ingoglia, chairman of the Hernando Republican Executive Committee.
During the last election in Hernando, Ingoglia noted, Republican early voters outnumbered Democratic early voters by nearly 20 percent.
There should be a shift in focus away from early voting toward absentee ballots because early voting costs taxpayers money, Ingoglia said. Early voters also might regret voting prior to election day if a "revelation" about a candidate comes out in the final days of a campaign, he said.
"In any event," he added, "wouldn't putting a stamp on (an) absentee ballot be much easier than waiting in line for hours after a hard day at work?"
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or [email protected]