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Early voting reshapes campaigning in St. Petersburg elections

Just after 7 a.m. on a rainy Sept. 1, a voter at Roberts Recreation Center approaches a voting machine to cast her ballot in the primary.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Just after 7 a.m. on a rainy Sept. 1, a voter at Roberts Recreation Center approaches a voting machine to cast her ballot in the primary.

ST. PETERSBURG — City Council member Jeff Danner carefully planned the release of his $3,000 campaign commercial.

It wasn't prepared as a final blitz before the Nov. 3 general election. Instead, he targeted the 10-day spot to coincide with the arrival of mail ballots last month. It also was less expensive than sending direct mail cards, he said.

The growing number of people voting by mail has changed the strategies and timing of campaigns for mayor and City Council in St. Petersburg. More than half of the 37,360 ballots cast in the Sept. 1 primary were done by mail ballot.

Instead of campaigns intensifying as Election Day nears, candidates have geared up to reach thousands of people voting well in advance of the polls opening. Ballots started hitting the mail on Sept. 18, and more than 57,600 have been sent.

Already, more than 5,980 people have voted by mail in the general election.

"It feels like we're in the middle of Election Day each day," said Kathleen Ford, who is running for mayor against Bill Foster.

She and other candidates are timing mailings to reach voters who have mail ballots sent to them (the information is legally available to candidates). Foster recently targeted recipients with automated phone calls touting his candidacy.

Before, "you would never do a robo-call this far out," Foster said.

It doesn't just affect strategy. It affects the bottom line of campaigns. Being able to effectively reach mail voters makes the campaign more expensive, Ford and Foster said.

"You really can't ignore it," said council candidate Steve Kornell, who faces Angela Rouson in District 5.

Some civic groups have yet to endorse candidates. Community forums and debates are still on tap.

Danner said he somewhat questions the early start to voting, particularly as someone who was out of the public eye without a primary race.

"It's almost too late" for endorsements to have a big impact, said Danner, who faces a challenge from consultant Leonard Schmiege.

But returning mail ballots later doesn't necessarily mean better voting.

Of the 701 ballots that arrived too late to be counted in the November 2008 general election, 70 percent came from people who received them within four weeks of the election, Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark said.

The ballots take the place of early voting sites, because the city and Clark decided it would be less costly.

At roughly $1.40 apiece, mail ballots cost $84,600 for the primary. Early voting sites cost $61,000 each to run, Clark said.

Clark also said she believes mail ballots help spark higher turnout and reduce the cost of ballots needed on Election Day.

"I think the trend for mail ballot elections will continue, and I think we will see those numbers increase, not just here but elsewhere nationally," Clark said.

Voters can elect to automatically receive the ballots instead of requesting them every year. But there were scattered reports of confusion at polling places Sept. 1 as voters arrived to find that election records showed they had already received a ballot in the mail.

Voters must take their unused ballot to the polls with them if they decide they want to vote in person. An elections worker will mark it spoiled and allow the person to vote. Mail in ballots are not accepted at polling places on Election Day.

After the Sept. 1 primary, more than 1,100 people told the elections office to remove them from the automatic delivery list. Another 2,200 asked to receive them.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

This story has been changed to reflect the following correction:

A story about early voting in Sunday's Neighborhood Times mentioned 701 early mail ballots that were received too late to be counted in St. Petersburg. That election was the November 2008 general election.

FAST FACTS

Voting early

Confused about how early mail ballots work? Some frequently asked questions:

How do I get a mail ballot?

Call the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office at (727) 464-6788 to request a ballot. Voters do not need to give a reason for the request. Anyone can vote by mail.

What is the deadline to request a ballot?

Mail ballots must be requested by Oct. 28, the Wednesday before the Nov. 3 election.

When are mail ballots due?

Mail ballots must be received by 7 p.m. Nov. 3 in any Supervisor of Elections Office, but WILL NOT be accepting at polling places.

If I have a mail ballot, can I still vote at the polls on Election Day?

Yes. Take the ballot to the precinct. Poll workers will mark the ballot as spoiled. If a voter arrives without a mail ballot, poll workers should call an elections office to make sure the mail ballot has not been received.

Source: Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections

FAST FACTS

Register soon

Monday is the last day for residents in St. Petersburg, St. Pete Beach and Largo to register to vote in the Nov. 3 general election that will include the race for St. Petersburg mayor. If you are already registered to vote, you do not need to reregister. Voters can register or update their information at any Supervisor of Elections office, public library, driver's license office or government office handling social services.

Early voting reshapes campaigning in St. Petersburg elections 10/03/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 6, 2009 12:58pm]
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