Poll finds modest support in Tampa Bay for extended early voting

Lines at voting stations in South Florida stretched for blocks and lasted for hours, leaving the last ballots to be cast not on Election Day itself, but the following Wednesday morning.

With pictures and video footage of the lines all over the news, President Barack Obama mentioned them in his re-election speech. "By the way, we need to fix that," he said.

But to many in the Tampa Bay area, South Florida's Election Day woes may as well have occurred in another country.

A poll sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay found only modest support for increasing the number of early voting days, a step some politicians and voting rights groups have championed as a way to cut down on future election day lines.

Thirty-five percent of residents surveyed in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties said the number of early voting days should be increased. But more — 51 percent in Hillsborough and 47 percent in Pinellas — said the current number of days "is about right."

"From my experience, it worked out well for me," said Steve Ernst, 51, of New Tampa, who answered the telephone poll conducted Dec. 5-13. A frequent work traveler, Ernst knew he was going to be out of town on Election Day, so he voted early, standing in line for about 30 minutes to cast his ballot.

If the early voting period "was any shorter, speaking personally, I probably would have missed it," he said. "If it were longer, there's more of an opportunity to mismanage the data."

Like many interviewed for this story, Ernst said he was "troubled" that some Miami-Dade County residents waited as many as seven hours to vote. And the four extra days it took for Florida to award its 29 electoral points to Obama drained some of his confidence in the system.

But he and many others were hesitant to say that adding early voting days would be a cure-all.

In Hillsborough and Pinellas, where early voting and Election Day lines were shorter than in many other parts of the state, some people who were surveyed said they had no difficulty voting. If others did, it was likely their own fault, they reasoned.

"They give you ample opportunities to use the absentee ballot system," said Mike Petagna, 33, of St. Petersburg. "It seemed like everybody having a problem was trying to do it last minute."

Conducted by Braun Research, the poll surveyed 521 Pinellas and Hillsborough residents. About a third who had voted had cast ballots on Election Day, a third by mail ballot and a third during the early voting period.

The poll's overall margin of error was 4.3 percentage points.

While the maximum number of hours for early voting has held steady at 96, Florida's Republican-dominated Legislature, with Gov. Rick Scott's support, reduced the number of days in 2011. The early voting period shrunk to eight days from 14.

In Pinellas and Hillsborough, about 8 percent of people surveyed said the early voting period should be further shortened.

Florida election officials have blamed the long lines on an usually long ballot and increased voter turnout.

Daniel A. Smith, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, said that though it may seem as though there is little support for increased early voting in Tampa Bay, the fact that 35 percent of those surveyed want more days is significant.

"That it's that high in Pinellas is fairly remarkable," he said. More so than in other parts of Florida, mail ballots are hugely popular in Pinellas, and early voting is not.

In November, most of the county's voters cast mail ballots. Nearly 40,000 of them voted early, a 15 percent decrease from 2008.

Early voting "is not used heavily in Pinellas, so the fact that you have so many people thinking this should be extended is telling," Smith said.

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark is not one of them. "The early voting was sufficient," said Julie Marcus, the deputy supervisor of elections.

Pinellas opened three early voting centers to Hillsborough County's 15 centers.

Still, some Hillsborough voters had to wait as long as two hours to vote early, said incoming Supervisor of Elections Craig Latimer. He wants the number of early voting days returned to 14.

Latimer said he owes some of the longest lines in his county to the state's restrictions on early voting sites. By law, election officials can hold early voting only in election offices, libraries and city halls.

Hillsborough's largest precinct has none of these, Latimer said, so people traveled to another town for early voting, where they piled up in front of the polling place.

"We need to have more flexibility," he said.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Poll finds modest support in Tampa Bay for extended early voting 01/08/13 [Last modified: Monday, December 31, 2012 4:05pm]

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