TAMPA — Hillsborough County voters can get a jump on most others in Florida in casting ballots for the Republican presidential primary, beyond the traditional absentee ballot approach.
Early voting begins Monday. It continues for two weeks after that, up to the Saturday before the Jan. 31 primary date.
Election-law changes approved last year by the Legislature cut the number of days for early voting while allowing extended hours on the days that early voting does take place. However, Hillsborough is one of five Florida counties under U.S. Department of Justice supervision. That requires federal approval of changes to how elections are conducted to ensure they don't infringe on minority voting rights.
So Hillsborough — along with Collier, Hardee, Hendry and Monroe counties — is operating under the old rules, for now. Early voting in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties won't start until Jan. 21.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has expressed concern that changes to elections laws in several states, including Florida, may hinder voters' ability to register and cast ballots. So outgoing Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning has asked a three-judge panel in Washington, D.C., to review Florida's election-law changes, but that won't happen until after the primary.
"That's the reason we're voting early and Pasco, Pinellas, Manatee and Polk counties around us are not able to vote early yet" other than through absentee ballots, said Earl Lennard, Hillsborough County supervisor of elections.
The Justice Department already has blessed some aspects of Florida's elections changes, but there are components to address: Reducing the number of early voting days from up to 14 to eight while still allowing up to 96 hours total of early voting; requiring third-party groups that collect registration forms to submit them within 48 hours or face fines; reducing the expiration date of petition signatures on voter initiatives from four years to two; and requiring voters who try to change their address on election day, if they've moved from one county to another, to submit a provisional ballot.
Hillsborough voters can still change their addresses on election day and cast a regular ballot.
Only Republicans can vote in this month's presidential race.
There is one important exception. Temple Terrace is holding a referendum on whether the city should be allowed to waive certain taxes for new and expanding business. All voters, Democrats, Republicans and others, can vote on that issue.
For information about ballots and voting locations, go the Hillsborough supervisor of elections website at votehillsborough.org.