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."