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Tampa Bay area election officials plan to expand early voting hours

A line forms for early voting at one of three Pinellas sites in ’12.

MELISSA LYTTLE | Times (2012)

A line forms for early voting at one of three Pinellas sites in ’12.

A bill that would allow Florida counties to offer more early voting days is still awaiting Gov. Rick Scott's signature, but already Tampa Bay area election officials are planning to take advantage of the changes.

In Pinellas, polls will again open on the Sunday before an election, a day commonly known as "Souls to the Polls" when church services are followed by a trip to an early voting booth, according to Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark. And there, as in Hillsborough, the number of early voting days likely will increase from eight to the new maximum of 14.

Changes also are under way in Hernando and Pasco, where election officials are planning to expand the number of early voting sites.

The state Legislature approved the bill allowing for these revisions late Friday, on the final day of the session. A hoped-for cure to the hours-long wait times and other troubles that earned Florida national ridicule during the 2012 election, the bill gives counties more leeway to set early voting days and locations.

Undoing a 2011 law that reduced the number of early voting days from 14 to eight, the new bill leaves it up to election supervisors to offer between eight and 14 days of early voting. The proposed law also would force some counties to expand the number of early voting hours from a minimum of six to eight.

Election supervisors who decide to offer the maximum will have 168 hours (14 days of 12 hour voting windows), and those who choose the minimum will have 64 hours (eight days of eight hours).

"In a county the size of Pinellas County, we would always want the maximum number of hours for our general elections," said Clark. "But I'm not sure for the primary."

To cover the cost of increasing early voting days, Clark has asked the county for a 13 percent increase to her budget next year.

Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer said his county also would take advantage of the full 168 hours.

In Hernando, Supervisor of Elections Shirley Anderson said she would like to hold nine days of early voting, but has budgeted eight with a larger voting window. Whereas polls once closed at 4:30, they will stay open until 6 p.m. to catch people as they leave work.

"It's all going to depend on the money," she said.

Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, who helped influence the language in the bill, said that more important than the change in days and hours is the addition of early voting sites. The proposed law would expand eligible sites to include courthouses, convention centers, government-owned senior centers, stadiums and fairgrounds.

"Early voting is much like real estate; it's about location, location, location," he said, adding that he thought this factor, along with lengthy constitutional amendments, directly led to the long lines in some parts of the state. Though Corley said it is too soon for him to decide whether Pasco needs more early voting days in the next election, there are a few sites he's eyeing to replace the cramped public libraries he has used in the past.

In Pinellas, where Clark has emphasized mail ballots, only three early voting sites were opened in the last election, all in the middle and southern parts of the county. Clark said Monday she would consider adding more.

"I plan to take a look at it," she said. "I've always said that we would step back and take a look at what we're doing, re-evaluate what we've done, if we have other options … that will truly serve our voters, not have them stand in line for six or eight hours to vote."

For voters in the Fish Hawk neighborhood of Hillsborough, the addition of new sites could bring some relief. The neighborhood has none of the buildings that qualified under previous rules as an early voting site, which meant voters in the county's largest precinct had to drive to other polling places.

"There was nothing at all we could use there," Latimer said. "At least now I'll be able to designate an area."

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.

Tampa Bay area election officials plan to expand early voting hours 05/06/13 [Last modified: Monday, May 6, 2013 10:59pm]
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