Saturday, February 17, 2018
Politics

Romano: Deborah Clark vs. Jack Latvala on voting: They are both right

Congratulations!

The folks in the Supervisor of Elections Office have turned Pinellas County into the envy of Florida when it comes to absentee balloting.

By mail or dropoff, due to demographics or design, this county has been the most efficient collector of absentee ballots of any metro area in the state.

So pop the corks, cut the cake and revel in your accomplishments.

And then consider rethinking your good work.

As ludicrous as that might sound, the county needs to make sure it is not tilting the balance of elections by favoring one form of voting over another.

In other words, does Pinellas have an overwhelming number of absentee ballots because that is the preferred method of residents? Or are those numbers skewed because it is Supervisor Deborah Clark who has a preference for absentee ballots?

Those questions seem to be at the heart of Sen. Jack Latvala's shot across Clark's bow with a legislative proposal to limit the number of absentee dropoff sites.

Just to be clear here, Latvala's idea needs to whither and die.

Clark's system for dropoff sites is both safe and convenient, and any attempt to sabotage absentee balloting should be viewed with distrust and disdain.

But I don't think that is what Latvala wants.

He seems to be using the threat of absentee restrictions as a way to force Clark into expanding her number of early voting locations.

And the man has a point.

As impressive as Pinellas' numbers are with absentee ballots, they are equally wretched when it comes to in-person early voting.

Consider the numbers:

Among the seven largest metro areas in Florida (the counties including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Palm Beach, Tampa, Orlando, St. Petersburg and Jacksonville), Pinellas was second in the percentage of voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election and first in the 2010 gubernatorial election. So far, so good.

Pinellas was also dead last both years in the percentage of votes cast on election day. Now, that's not as bad as it sounds because Pinellas wasn't drastically behind, and the county's low ratio is easily explained by the vast number of residents who cast ballots prior to the big day.

In fact, Pinellas had far more absentee ballots than any of the other large markets. In 2010, absentee voters made up 51.2 percent of the Pinellas vote. In 2012, it inched up to 53.8 percent. The next-best showing was Hillsborough with 30.9 percent in 2012.

On the other hand, in-person early voting contributed 8.5 percent of the Pinellas total in 2012 and 3.2 percent in 2010. By comparison, every other metro area had double the percentage in 2012 and a couple had four times the percentage of early voters.

And when you consider the number of early voting sites in each county, it all makes perfect sense. Miami-Dade had 20 early voting sites. Hillsborough had 15. Even Duval, which has 80,000 fewer registered voters than Pinellas, had 17 sites.

Pinellas had three.

Now Clark will point out that in-person early voting sites are more expensive to maintain, and she's right. She will also point out that Pinellas voters seem to have embraced the idea of absentee ballots, and she's right about that, too.

So why is this a big deal?

Because it is dangerous to tilt the voting paradigm too heavily in any one direction. By doing so, you run the risk of catering elections to a particular demographic.

Look, Clark has experience here. If she says Pinellas works better with more absentee dropoff locations than early voting sites, then we should listen.

But when similar-sized counties are averaging 14 or 15 early voting sites and Pinellas only has three, then you might have a problem.

The answer is simple, and it is not mandating cutbacks on absentee locations. The answer is expanding early voting locations to a reasonable level.

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