Legions of pajama-clad voters could decide Florida's ballot long before the August primary.
Elections officials began mailing out hundreds of thousands of vote-by-mail ballots this week, creating an unprecedented army of absentee voters in an unpredictable election year rattled by vulnerable incumbents, a desolate economy and the sudden emergence of two wealthy political upstarts.
With the ballots poised to arrive weeks before a slate of scheduled debates or other opportunities for voters to learn about the candidates, the emergence of the home as the polling place of choice for so many voters lends further uncertainty to a year already testing many of Florida's political traditions.
"There's no such thing as election day in Florida anymore," said Eric Jotkoff, a spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party. "It's election month."
Florida voters have steadily abandoned traditional polling sites for pre-election day voting options in recent years, particularly during President Barack Obama's 2008 grass roots campaign. What is new this year is the concerted effort behind the change. Political parties, election officials and the candidates themselves are all making a hard push for absentee ballots, with startling results:
• The Pinellas County supervisor of elections has fielded requests for 234,000 absentee ballots so far this year, compared to 78,268 requests during the 2008 primary.
• Hernando County reported 6,377 absentee ballots requests this year, compared to 4,728 requests during the 2008 primary.
• In Broward County, 19,011 absentee voters returned their vote-by-mail ballots during the 2008 primary. This year, the office has fielded 65,522 absentee requests.
"You can vote from the privacy of your home, you can get on the computer, you can look up candidates and Google," said Pasco Elections Supervisor Brian Corley, who sent out 18,458 absentee ballots last week, a far jump from the 6,429 Pasco voters who returned vote-by-mail ballots in the 2008 primary. "It's a huge convenience."
And the ranks of absentee voters are expected to keep growing. Voters can request vote-by-mail ballots up until roughly a week before the election.
"It basically means if you thought you had until Aug. 24 to do your promotions, now you really have until July 15 to lock down your votes," said Elizabeth Tetreault, campaign director for Maurice Ferre, an underdog candidate in the crowded U.S. Senate Democratic primary. "It's going to be very different."
To be sure, not every voter who receives an absentee ballot will vote by mail. As in previous years, voters can wait and vote on election day or they can vote up to two weeks early at sites set by the county elections offices.
That hasn't deterred the raft of political insiders doing everything possible to ensure that votes are cast soon.
Operatives from the state Republican and Democratic parties have asked local party officials to promote absentee ballots. Campaigns have directed squads of volunteers to sell their candidates through telephone pitches aimed at voters slated to receive absentee ballots. Candidates are appearing more frequently on television and through direct mail advertisements.
"That's intentional," said David Bishop, a spokesman for Jeff Kottkamp's attorney general campaign, which began airing television ads in the Tampa Bay and Orlando media markets last week. The lieutenant governor faces two rivals in August's heated Republican primary and needs absentee votes if he is going to advance to the general election, Bishop said. "We think they will play a critical role in who wins the primary."
Republicans historically outnumber Democrats in absentee voting, which tends to favor candidates whose names are familiar. But with the arrival of Republican gubernatorial hopeful Rick Scott and U.S. Senate Democratic contender Jeff Greene, two newcomers flush with cash, it's unclear what will happen.
"Floridians are hungry for someone who is not a career politician," said Jennifer Baker, a spokesman for the Scott campaign, which has flooded markets across the state with ads.
Candidates of every ilk have quickly learned the system. They call elections offices for constant updates. Once a voter returns an absentee ballot, the person is dropped from a campaign's contact list, at least until the general election.
In some instances, campaigns use this as a selling point, informing voters overwhelmed by direct mailers and robocalls that they'll be left alone once they submit their ballots.
Another incentive for campaigns to encourage early voting is that last-minute accusations from the opposing camp have less power if lots of voters have already cast their ballots.
It's a stark change from years past, when only a smattering of Florida voters — those able to show a need — were allowed to vote by absentee ballot. That requirement was eliminated during a rash of election reforms ushered in after the debacle of the 2000 election, where Florida's ability to count votes became an international joke.
Absentee ballots were consequently rebranded "vote by mail" ballots, and elections supervisors hosted public meetings to counter rumors that absentee ballots were counted only in close elections, if at all.
"Why stand in line for the same ballot you can have mailed to your home?" Pinellas County's supervisor of elections website tells voters.
Election officials say voter ease is a top priority, but they, too, consider absentee ballots useful.
"It allows us to do really good planning," said Craig Latimer, the chief of staff for the Hillsborough elections office, which saw pre-election voting options outpace Election Day votes for the first time in 2008. "We know how many have gone out, but we also know how many have come back."
Not everyone thinks absentee ballots are good for democracy.
Some political observers have begun to question what they regard as a potentially dangerous trend.
Florida GOP leader John Thrasher won a 2009 special state Senate election marred by reports of compromised absentee ballots after a shadow group trying to defeat Thrasher persuaded voters to return mail ballot requests to a private post office box in Jacksonville instead of an elections office.
Also, the Hillsborough elections office tallied 846 absentee votes eight days after the 2008 general election. The office said no votes were lost.
Richard Scher, a University of Florida political science professor working on a book that claims absentee ballots foster disenfranchisement, said voters must be certain that their ballots are counted.
Cristina Silva can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8846.