Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark ignored criticism for opening only three early-voting sites in 2008 and 2010 and launched an aggressive campaign pushing the merits of mail-in ballots.
For the first time in history, more Pinellas County voters opted to mail ballots from the comfort of their homes instead of casting them at polling places.
The result: 14.4 percent of voters mailed ballots, compared to 9.6 percent at the polls.
Pinellas leads Florida in a growing trend in statewide and national elections that is changing the way candidates campaign and making the election process more private.
Some worry about the loss of the shared experience of election day, while others are concerned about fraud.
But elections supervisors say mail voting is more convenient, and Clark says you can't beat the cost.
The expense of running elections in a time of budget cuts will move more counties toward mail voting, Clark predicts, reducing the need for early voting sites.
"I think budget constraints tend to move people in directions they may not otherwise go," Clark said, "even if it moves them to make better decisions."
Clark reduced the number of early voting sites from 11 in 2006 to three in 2008, a controversial move. Clark said the sites are expensive to run — $61,000 per site for the two weeks they operated in 2006. Since early voting was allowed in 2004, Clark hasn't noticed a difference in turnout.
"It hasn't increased turnout here or anywhere else," she said. "But mail ballots do."
So Clark and her staff began gearing their voter education campaigns toward mail ballots . She also added to voter registration forms the option of requesting mail ballots. A streaming video was posted to Clark's website explaining mail voting. And in July, 61,000 brochures about mail voting were sent to voters who cast mail ballots or voted early in 2008 but had not yet requested a mail ballot for 2010.
As a result, 86,524 Pinellas voters cast ballots by mail in this year's primary, compared to 29,468 in the larger Hillsborough County and 9,509 in Pasco. In contrast, Hillsborough had 14 early-voting sites open, drawing 24,161 early votes. Pinellas had only 2,796 voters at its three sites.
Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard said his staff puts more emphasis on the three ways to vote — by mail, at an early voting site or on election day — rather than just one method. Pasco Supervisor Brian Corley said he has worked to dispel misunderstandings about mail voting, such as the false belief that "absentee ballots" are for voters who will not be in town on election day or that the votes are counted only if it's a close election.
Both agreed with Clark's notion that voting by mail may be the wave of the future.
"It's a busy, mobile society," Lennard said. "Just look around on Nov. 2 at the very large number of people stuck on I-4, at the airport, the number of people called away for business or various reasons. Observing that, I'd think that voting by mail and early voting will continue to grow."
He wonders if that might change the meaning of election day for some.
"It's camaraderie that you feel when you vote," Lennard said. "My thought is that when you go to the polling place, it's a social experience as well as a civic one. When you vote by mail, it's an individual, isolated activity. You're sitting at a table, maybe with your wife or family members. It's not the same as engaging in the polling process."
University of Tampa government professor Scott Paine agrees that voting by mail creates a disconnect among voters, but worries about something worse: fraud.
"When I go to vote at the polls, someone is there, they see me, see my ID, see my voter card and signature and watch me vote where I'm protected from outside pressure," Paine said. "That is not the way mail-in votes work. People are sometimes encouraged to do mail-in and quote-unquote 'assisted' in casting their vote. That's an area of fraud that is difficult to measure and not unimportant in close races."
Candidates have responded to the trend toward early voting by releasing campaign commercials that coincide with the arrival of mail ballots two weeks before election day. Last-minute campaign messages become less effective in areas where mail voting is popular, and candidates may have a harder time persuading the "persuadables," Paine said.
In Pinellas, the number of Democrat, Republican and nonpartisan mail-in votes was proportional to the overall percentage of registered voters from each group.
The bottom line, Clark said, is that voting by mail is more convenient for everyone. And if convenience encourages more people to vote — and saves tax money to boot — more counties should take the lead in voting by mail.
"I think people are reluctant to be the first one," Clark said. "It's easier to just continue a process than it is to step out and change a process when the other 66 counties aren't doing it."
Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8452.