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Pinellas' early voting setup favors the GOP

By encouraging absentee ballots and limiting access to early voting, Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deb Clark has chosen a path that favors Republicans in November's election.

Her Democratic opponent, Jack Killingsworth, says the approach taken by Clark — a Republican — is unfair.

"It does have the advantage of enhancing Republicans' chances to win elections," he said.

Clark said there's nothing partisan about her support for absentees. They're far more convenient for voters, she said, allowing them to fill out ballots at their leisure and not worry about taking time from work or standing in line.

"I think you are going to see more and more voters looking to participate this way," Clark said.

Pinellas voters can request an absentee ballot and return it to the supervisor's office, either by mail or at one of 14 dropoff locations. Or they can visit one of three early voting sites, the minimum number required by law.

Republicans have a strong record of casting absentee ballots. As of Friday morning, 38,545 registered Republicans had cast absentees in Pinellas compared to 30,882 registered Democrats.

In terms of the total number of voters who had requested absentees, Republicans had a 77,562 to 66,098 ballot edge.

At Pinellas early voting locations, however, Democrats had cast 6,379 early ballots and Republicans 2,714 between Monday and Thursday, according to a review of voting data compiled by the state Division of Elections.

Clark began to experiment with early voting in 2004, after it was made an option by the state Legislature. By the 2006 primary, Pinellas offered 11 locations.

Arguing that early voting's impact on overall turnout can't justify the costs involved — roughly $250,000 for a countywide election — Clark's office largely abandoned the practice and has pushed absentee ballots.

Since the general election in 2006, early voting has been offered only at the supervisor's offices in Clearwater, Largo and St. Petersburg.

Darryl Paulson, a professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, said this probably has put Republicans over the top in some elections.

Having seen big gains in new Democratic registrations, Sen. Barack Obama is encouraging supporters to vote early.

The Obama campaign, the national president of the League of Women Voters and U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor have all called on Clark to open more early voting sites, but she has stood firm.

Clark points to huge absentee ballot gains Democrats have made this year: With 10 days left until Nov. 4, Democrats in Pinellas have cast nearly the same number of absentees that they did during the entire 2004 election.

As of Thursday, nearly 15 percent of Pinellas voters had either cast absentee ballots or voted early. In Hillsborough County, which offers 13 early voting sites, the figure was 11 percent.

Carol Weissert, a professor of political science at Florida State University, said some research suggests elected supervisors emphasize policies that favor their party. "There is accountability," Weissert said, "as long as you can vote them out of office."

With four days of early voting results in statewide, Democrats led Republicans in total turnout for the first time this election, with 653,573 early and absentee ballots cast compared to 652,648, the state Democratic party said Friday.

At the same point in the 2006 election cycle, the party said, Republicans had a 15 percent total turnout advantage.

Will Van Sant can be reached at vansant@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4166.

.Fast facts

Know your options

To learn more about your early or absentee voting options, call the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections at (727) 464-6108 or visit www.votepinellas.com.

Pinellas' early voting setup favors the GOP 10/24/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2008 4:26pm]
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