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In sleepy St. Petersburg city elections, mail ballots rule

Assistant Clerk Laura Harris-Wolf gets ready for today’s election at American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Assistant Clerk Laura Harris-Wolf gets ready for today’s election at American Baptist Church of the Beatitudes.

ST. PETERSBURG — It's election day — but in name only for most city voters.

About 85 percent of St. Petersburg's 156,517 registered voters won't cast a ballot in today's general election that decides the fate of four City Council seats and eight measures addressing a range of issues, including the future of the port and tax breaks for companies that create jobs.

In fact, odds are that anyone casting ballots did so long before today.

By the time the polls open at 7 a.m. at 71 locations across the city, more than 12,500 people, or 8 percent of the registered voters, already had mailed their ballots.

It's the latest sign of the growing popularity of mail ballots. State law was changed in 2002 so people didn't need a reason to vote by mail, making it easier to do so. It wasn't until 2008, however, when touch screen machines were scrapped for paper ballots and optical scanners, that voting by mail took off, said Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark.

"Some voters preferred the touch screen machines, but when we went to all paper, there was no difference anymore between the mail ballot and the ballot at the precincts," Clark said.

Ever since, voters have steadily migrated to mail.

In 2007, the last time St. Petersburg had a comparable election year — a City Council election with no mayor's race to stir interest — 9.8 percent of voters cast ballots.

That's 2 percentage points more than this year's turnout — before the polls open.

The difference is that in 2007, just 3,462 voted by mail in St. Petersburg. Two years later, during the mayor's race, more people voted by mail than in person — the first time that happened in city history.

This year's mail votes are quadruple the number in 2007.

"Voters like to get their ballots and study them instead of walking into a polling place,'' Clark said. "It gives them time to think about it."

The ballots went out Oct. 4. That's not a lot of time for candidates to get their messages out, especially those taking on incumbents.

"It is a challenge," said Brent Hatley, who is challenging Bill Dudley for District 3. "But people know me, so I don't know it's that big of a problem."

While this election looks certain to draw more ballots than 2007, credit will go to the mail, not the races.

Unlike other off years, there's no major referendum question sparking controversy. A measure to increase the time a company can lease and manage the city port from 10 years to 25 years hasn't stirred much interest. Not much has been heard, as well, on a measure to grant tax incentives to companies that create jobs.

"I don't see a lot of signs, anywhere," said Mayor Bill Foster. "I haven't seen much in the mail. There's no referendum issue that's making people go to the polls, so I think you're just not hearing the buzz you would have heard in previous years."

On the ballot

City Council

District 1: Charles Gerdes vs. Robert Kersteen

Distict 3: William Dudley

vs. Brent Hatley

District 5: Steven Kornell vs. no opponent (voters can choose to have a new election next year)

District 7: Gershom Faulkner vs. Wengay Newton

Referendum questions

No. 1: Should the city allow the length of leases on the city-owned port to be increased from 10 years to 25 years?

No. 2: Should the City Council waive property taxes for new businesses that move to the city or existing businesses that expand if they create jobs?

No. 3: Should the City Council develop a downtown waterfront master plan by 2015?

No. 4: Should the mayor and City Council, who draw council district boundaries, appoint a board to draw the lines instead?

No. 5: Should the City Council consider, but not require, management evaluations every year from city staff?

No. 6: Should the City Council hold public hearings before approving changes to adopted city budgets?

No. 7: Should the mayor be required to submit a balanced budget to the City Council?

No. 8: Should the charter be changed to correct typographical errors and clarify existing responsibilities between City Council and the mayor?

In sleepy St. Petersburg city elections, mail ballots rule 11/07/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 11:14pm]
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