On paper, Cheyrl Bowman of Largo looks like the prototypical Pinellas County mail ballot voter.
She's a registered Republican and over the age of 65, like most residents in the 13th congressional district who have chosen to vote by mail in the special election to fill the late U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young's seat.
But Bowman, 73, is also a classic swing voter and, on her mail ballot earlier this month, she chose Democrat Alex Sink, in part because of the candidate's support for the Affordable Care Act. Amid a raging national debate over health care, older voters like her are turning out in droves, and the importance they attach to issues like Social Security, Medicare and the health care law could decide the fate of this Gulf Coast district.
As of Tuesday, state election records showed that 83,000 residents had already voted by absentee ballot, a practice that has become a way of life in Pinellas, where people are more likely to vote by mail than in other parts of Florida. Because this is a special election, it's unlikely the district will exceed absentee turnout from previous years. In 2012, more than 188,000 people here voted by mail.
Of those who have voted in this election, nearly 80 percent are age 55 and up. And though voters over the age of 65 make up about a third of the district's electorate, they account for more than half of the people who have sent in mail ballots thus far. Sink became a prime example of the trend on Tuesday, when the 65-year-old cast her vote by absentee ballot two weeks before election day.
It's no surprise that older voters are a potent force in Florida politics, and there's no way of knowing how mail-in voters are casting their ballots. But if history serves as a reliable indicator, this group will make up a majority of voters, outnumbering those who show up to the polls on March 11. Two years ago, absentee voters in this district surpassed Election Day voters by more than 60,000 people.
In interviews, many said they were motivated to vote by the candidates' divergent stances on health care and the future of government safety-net programs.
"I'm a die-hard Republican," said Pat Porcelli, 68, of Clearwater, a retired electrician who said he was likely to support Republican David Jolly anyway. He noted that Jolly's vow to repeal the health care law, or Obamacare, was "the icing on the cake."
To Philip Pratt, a 68-year-old textbook author who lives in Clearwater, Jolly's views on the Affordable Care Act were a leading reason to vote for Sink.
"He just says repeal it and he doesn't say what that's going to mean for people who have already gotten insurance under it who wouldn't have had it before," Pratt said.
While Sink's campaign has focused from the outset on targeting elderly voters, Jolly appears to be catching up. Earlier this week, the 41-year-old appeared in a commercial with his mother and his aunt in which he explained that his opposition to the health care law is driven by his concern for seniors' well-being.
"You're looking at two of the most important people in my life," he says, standing in a kitchen while the two older women prepare what looks to be lunch, "so protecting their Social Security means everything to me."
Though a large turnout among older voters would seem to favor the Republican candidate, the numbers indicate it may not be much of an advantage in this case.
In past elections, Republicans have dominated Democrats in absentee voting, regularly turning out thousands more people well before Election Day. In 2012, nearly 11,000 more Republicans voted by mail ballot than did Democrats. But so far this election, Republicans have a thin lead of about 2,000 voters, a modest advantage that narrows even further among older voters.
"It's something to be very, very concerned about," said Fred Piccolo, a Republican political consultant.
A poll taken earlier this month, and commissioned by the Tampa Bay Times and other local news outlets, found that Sink was winning over far more Republicans than Jolly was Democrats. Republicans need a turnout advantage to win, Piccolo explained, but in a tight race — and this is a tight race — it has to be larger than a few percentage points.
Jolly's campaign staff is analyzing the early voter turnout every day and his supporters see the numbers differently. Sure, their candidate needs good turnout numbers, but those could also be delivered on election day when Republicans in this district have, in the past, significantly outnumbered Democrats. And with about two weeks remaining before the election, time remains for the mail ballot figures to change.
Campaign staff for Jolly would not speak on the record about the absentee ballot numbers, and officials with Sink's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
After carefully filling out their ballots at home, signing their names on the envelopes and slapping on a stamp, some voters already consider the election a thing of the past.
"Did I vote already?" asked a 72-year-old man from Clearwater, repeating a reporter's question. After a long pause, he turned to ask his wife. He'd voted, she assured him. She had taken care of it.
Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.