As the lines for early voting wrap around the block in cities across Florida, the hundreds of thousands of people who have already voted absentee may feel a bit smug. They didn't have to stand around on the sidewalk for an hour. They could vote in their pajamas, sitting at the kitchen table.
But there are pitfalls to voting absentee, too. Already, 200 Pinellas County voters and more than 50 Hillsborough County voters have had their absentee ballots tossed aside, many of them over a simple mistake.
And unlike the early voters, those who foul up an absentee ballot won't get a second chance to get it right.
"There's nothing we can do," said Nancy Whitlock, a spokeswoman for Pinellas Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark. "The law says they've already cast their ballots."
Absentee ballots remain the local favorite among early voting methods, used by about 60 percent of voters so far in the four-county Tampa Bay region. Republicans are more likely to vote by absentee, while Democrats are more likely to visit early voting sites.
As of Thursday, 136,000 of the 200,300 Pinellas voters who have requested absentee ballots have sent them in, compared with about 30,000 people who stood in line for early voting. That's double the previous record for mail ballot requests, set during the 2004 presidential election.
Clark has suffered heavy criticism for opening only three sites for early voting, but she contends that mail-in ballots are a more cost-effective alternative.
"It's easier for the voters, and it drastically reduces our election costs," she said last month, estimating the savings at $250,000 per election.
In Hillsborough, more than 61,000 absentee ballots, out of 134,00 that had been requested, had been returned by Wednesday. By comparison, 93,000 Hillsborough voters had cast their ballots in person thanks to early voting at 13 locations, three times the number who cast early ballots in Pinellas.
When voters mess up an optical scan ballot during early voting — say, by voting for two candidates in the same race, instead of just one — the mistake is caught when the voter feeds the ballot through the polling place scanner. That gives the voter a chance to do it over, raising the chances that the vote will count.
But absentee voters get only one shot at getting it right. Many of them are tripped up by what Pinellas County Commissioner Bob Stewart, a longtime member of the county canvassing board, called "the simplest thing" — failing to sign the envelope.
State law requires the signature for the ballot to be valid. When the canvassing board examines absentee ballots, that's the first thing that's checked. In the 2004 presidential election, 267 of the 88,000 absentee ballots cast in Pinellas County were tossed out. One-fifth of the discarded ballots were tossed because they lacked that crucial signature, Whitlock said.
The mail-in ballots feature a few other odd wrinkles — the voter pays the cost of postage, for instance. For Pinellas voters, mailing the ballot costs 42 cents, while in Citrus County it's $1.17. The weight of the ballot determines the cost.
Wednesday was the deadline for requesting an absentee ballot by mail. But voters can visit their elections office through Tuesday to request an in-office absentee ballot to take home and then return, or they can fill it out on the spot.
While early voting is going on, absentee ballots can be turned in at early voting sites, but on Election Day, Tuesday, they can be returned only to the main elections office.