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George Will makes faulty claims about Pinellas election

It's no secret the March 11 special election to replace late Rep. C.W. Bill Young commands an audience far broader than Pinellas County.

National politicians and pundits are closely watching what happens in Florida's 13th Congressional District, including well-known conservative columnist George Will.

Will examined the dynamics of the race in a Washington Post column Thursday.

"If Democrat Alex Sink wins, the significance will be minimal because she enjoys multiple advantages," he wrote. "Hence if Republican David Jolly prevails, Republicans will construe this as evidence that Barack Obama has become an anvil in the saddle of every Democratic candidate."

Some parts of Will's column did not sound right to PunditFact's ears. Here's what we found.

County versus district

Will wrote: "Obama carried this Gulf Coast district, a one-county constituency near Tampa, by 8.2 points in 2008 and 5.6 points in 2012."

Will is right that the district includes just one county. But he erred in using county election results to measure the size of Obama's wins. The 13th Congressional District covers most of Pinellas County, but not all of it. The distinction is important.

The Legislature reshuffled the boundary of the district in 2012 as part of its once-a-decade redistricting process. It stretches from South Pinellas to Dunedin, excluding pieces of southern and downtown St. Petersburg. If the entire county were included, the district would lean more to the left, as the county election data Will cited show.

Voting data by congressional district is available but a lot harder to uncover because it must be tabulated by the precincts. Neither the Florida Department of State nor the Pinellas County elections supervisor's office keep it.

A Web tool developed for the Florida House as part of the redistricting process proved helpful. My District Builder pulls residents' demographic and political data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Florida motor vehicle departments and, yes, local elections supervisors offices to help voters figure out the traits of various districts. Using this tool, PunditFact found:

• In 2008, Obama earned 51.32 percent of the vote in Young's old seat (District 10) and Republican candidate Sen. John McCain got 47.14 percent. That's a margin of 4.18 percentage points.

• In 2012, Obama garnered 49.95 percent of the CD-13 vote versus Republican candidate Mitt Romney's 48.49 percent, a margin of almost 1.5 percentage points.

Other efforts to analyze the presidential vote by congressional district in 2008 and 2012 produce similar findings, including from the liberal Daily Kos and nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

David Wasserman, Cook House editor, argues it is more fair to compare the 2008 votes of constituents who live in present-day District 13 (versus turnout for then-District 10) with the 2012 returns because the boundaries of Young's district varied in the elections in question. The Cook results are not significantly different from what we found in our exercise with My District Builder (and certainly a lot closer than Will's).

• In 2008, 51.33 percent of voters living within the boundaries of current-day District 13 chose Obama, and 47.54 percent chose McCain — a difference of nearly 3.8 points.

• In 2012, 50.25 percent of voters chose Obama and 48.77 chose Romney — a difference of 1.48 points.

Despite small differences in these measures, one thing is clear: Will's claim about the size of Obama's wins in Young's district is overstated. PunditFact rates it False.

Absentee ballots

In making the case that the country's love for early voting will help Sink, Will wrote, "Any Floridian who has ever requested an absentee ballot henceforth gets one automatically."

Both the Florida Department of State and the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections office told PunditFact this is incorrect.

According to Florida Statutes, 101.62 (1)(a), a person requesting an absentee ballot could opt to receive one just for a specific election or receive them for all elections through the second regularly scheduled general election.

In other words, if a voter requested an absentee ballot for the Congressional District 13 special election, he or she would automatically receive one for the 2014 and 2016 general elections (unless he or she requested it just for this election).

After that, their request would be canceled unless they made another request at some point.

"So it's not indefinite, in other words," said Pinellas County elections supervisor spokeswoman Nancy Whitlock.

A voter who requested a ballot for the 2012 general election would automatically get one for the 2014 special election, as it is one of the elections covered in the two-cycle window. The exception would be if they requested a ballot solely for the 2012 election.

Will used strong language to describe why Sink would have the edge, saying people get mail-in ballots in perpetuity in Florida. But that's not the way it works.

PunditFact rates the claim False.

The statement

Says President Barack Obama carried Congressional District 13 "by 8.2 points in 2008 and 5.6 points in 2012."

George Will, Thursday in a Washington Post column

The ruling

Politifact ruling: False
Will uses countywide election returns to get the wrong numbers. Using returns from the actual congressional district — which doesn't cover all of Pinellas County — shows Obama carried the district by about 4 points in 2008 and about 1.5 points in 2012. We rate Will's statement False.

The statement

"Any Floridian who has ever requested an absentee ballot henceforth gets one automatically."

George Will, Thursday in a Washington Post column

The ruling

Politifact ruling: False
A Florida voter who requested an absentee ballot would get one automatically through the end of the calendar year of the second general election — not "henceforth." We rate the claim False.

George Will makes faulty claims about Pinellas election 02/09/14 [Last modified: Sunday, February 9, 2014 11:38pm]
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