TALLAHASSEE — More people took advantage of early voting in last month's Florida primary than in any primary before it, despite Democratic fears that fewer days of early voting would suppress turnout.
According to state elections officials, more than 367,000 people went to early voting centers, or about one of six voters who showed up. That compares with 363,000 in the 2010 primary and 240,000 in 2008. (Florida has had early voting since 2002.)
Even more voters cast absentee ballots through the mail.
Kate Graves of Brandon voted at the Bloomingdale branch library six days before the primary, one of more than 20,000 Hillsborough residents who voted early.
"It's the convenience factor," the 79-year-old retiree says. "At my age, I don't like standing in line. As soon as they opened up the voting, I took advantage."
Graves has something else in common with other early voters: Like the majority of them, she's a Democrat.
In the five counties with the most early voters in the primary, Democrats made up 51 percent of voters and Republicans 39 percent, with the rest not affiliated with a party.
Many factors influence turnout, from the weather to voter interest in primary races to the date of the election. The primary on Aug. 14 was two weeks earlier than usual, and the statewide turnout was 20.5 percent.
The Republican-controlled Florida Legislature's decision to cut early voting days from 14 to eight in 2011 remains highly controversial. Democrats accuse Republicans of seeking to manipulate, for partisan advantage, a type of voting favored by Democrats, especially African-Americans, while Republicans say the new scheme adds flexibility.
Many more people are expected to vote early in the presidential election in November, and elections officials are emphasizing the convenience of voting early due to the unusually lengthy ballot, with 11 proposed state constitutional amendments.
Late Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice gave final approval to the eight-day early voting schedule in five counties that are under U.S. civil rights oversight. All five will offer 12 hours of early voting from Oct. 27 through Nov. 3, as a panel of federal judges had proposed.
In the primary, those five counties — Hillsborough, Monroe, Collier, Hardee and Hendry — offered 12 days of early voting instead of eight because they were still bound by the old election laws.
Early voting turnout in those counties in the primary was greater, said University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith.
Smith compared early voting in the five "covered" counties with the rest of the state and found that early voting was higher in counties with more early voting days. He said that shows that longer early voting periods boost voter turnout.
Smith and a fellow researcher, Michael Herron of Dartmouth College, found that 18.96 percent of voters voted early in five counties with more early voting days, compared with 15.39 percent who voted early in the rest of the state.
The largest of those five counties, by far, is Hillsborough.
The story of early voting is vastly different on the other side of Tampa Bay.
The only urban county where early voting remains very unpopular is Pinellas, where Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark emphasizes the ease of absentee voting by mail instead.
Voters are heeding Clark's message: Fewer people voted early in Pinellas last month than in comparatively tiny Monroe County in the Florida Keys.
A mere 1,612 Pinellas voters cast ballots at one of three early voting sites, while 102,341 cast absentee or mail ballots. A total of 140,000 people voted county-wide, a 23 percent turnout.
The mail-in voters included William Ott, 67, of Clearwater, a Largo High School graduate who has been voting in Pinellas since 1966 and who remembers a bad experience with long lines in a past election. That and health issues changed his method of voting.
"I finally gave up and said, 'Okay, I'm going to vote absentee,' " Ott said. "I didn't want to do it. I enjoyed the experience of going down to the polls on election day."
Ott likes a feature on the Pinellas elections website that allows him to track his ballot to be sure it's counted. "Now, that's kind of cool," he said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected].