Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Politics

'Early' voting still possible through over-the-counter ballots in Tampa Bay area

Early voting is technically over in Florida, but residents of several counties continued to cast ballots Sunday as election administrators found creative ways around state-imposed voting restrictions and a judge ordered extended early voting at one polling station in the Orlando area.

In Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, elections offices opened Sunday to give voters access to so-called over-the-counter absentee ballots they can request, fill out and hand in on the spot. Those locations were scheduled to open again for over-the-counter ballots today, as were elections offices in Pasco and Hernando counties.

Early voting in all but name, the practice is being encouraged by elections supervisors — as well as Democratic campaign officials — despite the state's elimination of early voting in the days immediately prior to the election, a period that historically has seen heavy voting by minorities, particularly African-Americans who vote with their church congregations on Sunday.

"It's not early voting," Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Earl Lennard said. "But it is voting early."

In a separate bid to boost voter turnout, the Florida Democratic Party filed lawsuits to extend formal early voting time in Orange, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Broward counties, citing high turnout Saturday, the last day of early voting, and a suspicious package that slowed voting at a polling station in Winter Park.

In response, a judge ordered Orange County to extend early voting for four hours on Sunday at that polling station only.

Chris Cate, spokesman for the Florida secretary of state, said the state would not contest the decision.

Despite the lawsuits, attention Sunday was turned to the handful of locations in the state where over-the-counter mail ballots — also called, in a peculiar linguistic contortion, "in-person absentee" ballots — could be cast.

A frenzied scene took shape in Miami-Dade County, where officials briefly shut down the one office they opened after being deluged with voters, the Miami Herald reported. Late in the afternoon, the office reopened.

Hillsborough and Pinellas experienced less of a crush. Offices saw a steady trickle of voters, many of whom said they had learned they could still vote "early" through news reports or at their Sunday church services.

Pasco and Hernando elections offices were not open Sunday, but administrators said they would be open during business hours today for over-the-counter absentee voting.

In Pinellas, voters picked up 750 mail ballots and dropped off 2,103 Sunday, said Julie Marcus, chief deputy supervisor of elections. (The number of dropped-off ballots included some picked up before Sunday.)

"It's such a big election," said Nancy Whitlock, spokeswoman for Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark. "We thought it was important to be accessible to the voters as much as possible."

It was not until Sunday morning, Whitlock said, that specific notices about over-the-counter absentee voting were put up on the office's website.

While poll hours on the Sunday and Monday before the election were announced in October, no emphasis was put on the fact that voters could show up to obtain and fill out a ballot.

But Whitlock said, "This was the plan all along."

In Hillsborough, Seffner resident Diane Shouppe said she received a phone call from the elections office urging her to vote on Sunday. A notification about over-the-counter mail ballot voting was also prominently displayed on the office's website.

"The statute is very clear," said Lennard, the Hillsborough elections supervisor. Voters "can pick up absentee ballots until Monday, and then what they do with it is their business."

Many voters, as well as some campaign officials, were nevertheless caught flat-footed.

On Sunday afternoon, after a flurry of news reports that polls effectively remained open to a form of early voting, President Barack Obama's campaign put out a statement calling attention to over-the-counter absentee voting that was still available in Miami-Dade, Hillsborough, Pinellas, Palm Beach, Orange, and Leon counties.

"There's a lot of confusion," said St. Petersburg resident Lois Barnes, an Obama supporter who voted by over-the-counter absentee ballot Sunday at 501 First Ave. N in St. Petersburg, one of three polling locations open in Pinellas.

After showing up to vote during official early voting hours on Friday and Saturday, only to be turned away by long lines, Barnes learned Sunday at the Church of God in downtown St. Petersburg that she could still vote.

In St. Petersburg, Corina Harrison heard via Facebook that she could still cast a ballot before Election Day. On Sunday afternoon, she pulled up in a car at the polling location and leaned out the window.

"Is this early voting?" Harrison asked.

"It's not early voting," responded poll worker Jack Adair. "But you can vote."

Harrison parked, exited the car and got in line.

Staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press. Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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