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 email@example.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.