TAMPA — Absentee ballots for the city's March 1 elections are starting to go into the mail, but a change to state law means many Tampa voters expecting a ballot will not get one — unless they act soon.
If you want an absentee ballot for this election, you must request it by 5 p.m. Feb. 23, officials say. That's true even if you voted by mail in the Nov. 2 election.
This change raises the possibility that even fewer voters will cast ballots in the mayoral and City Council races, where turnout has not topped 33 percent the last three elections.
"I think people assume when they sign up for absentee ballots that they get them in perpetuity, but that is absolutely not the case," mayoral candidate Bob Buckhorn said.
Before this year, a voter who requested an absentee ballot for any election would automatically receive the ballot for all elections held for the next two general election cycles, such as 2008 and 2010.
Last year, however, the Legislature changed the law while making a series of changes to absentee voting rules for military and overseas voters.
Now voters will receive an absentee ballot for only one general election cycle. Moreover, because of the change, Tampa voters must make a specific request if they want an absentee ballot in this city election.
"I suspect that people don't know the rules have changed," mayoral candidate Ed Turanchik said. "I talked to a guy today who said he'll be getting his absentee ballot soon. I said, 'Did you request one?' He said, 'No, we get one every time.' And I said, 'I'm not sure that's the case now. You might call the supervisors office.' "
For now, far fewer absentee ballots have been requested than were cast in the last two elections.
On Saturday, the Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Office mailed 143 absentee ballots to overseas voters. As of Tuesday morning, it had requests for another 1,660 domestic absentee ballots, which were expected to go in the mail next week, spokesman Travis Abercrombie said.
By comparison, nearly 4,100 voters voted by absentee ballot in the city's 2007 elections. That's more than one in seven voters in that election. In 2003, more than 5,000 Tampa voters — or about one in nine voters overall — cast their ballots by mail.
Hillsborough election officials are trying to spread the word that prospective voters have until Jan. 31 to register to vote in the city's election and until Feb. 23 to request an absentee ballot to be mailed to them if they want one.
(Unless the voter requests otherwise, a request for an absentee ballot in this election will remain good through the general election in 2012.)
Meanwhile, political campaigns are getting names of voters who request absentee ballots and plan to send them literature, call them or canvass them in person.
"I wouldn't say there's a concern" about the effect of the change, said Cameron Ross, who is managing former Mayor Dick Greco's campaign. But "people need to be aware, so we'll do everything in our power to help and get people to vote."