ST. PETERSBURG — It won't reassure the many St. Petersburg voters still uncertain and confused about their mayoral choices, but the election is coming far sooner than most people realize.
Starting July 13, elections officials will mail nearly 60,000 absentee ballots to city voters — meaning the mayoral primary could be decided long before the official Sept. 1 election.
"It is probably one of the least reported and most fascinating parts of this race. I don't know that anybody has a super plan for it, because this has never happened before," said Nick Hansen, campaign manager for candidate Deveron Gibbons, an Amscot Financial vice president.
How many voters will cast a ballot before election day? Consider that in Pinellas County municipal elections in March, 74 percent of Oldsmar voters cast mail-in ballots, 59 percent of Gulfport and Indian Rocks Beach voters cast ballots early, and 83 percent of Seminole voters voted by mail before election day.
The trend is not lost on St. Petersburg's leading mayoral contenders. Candidate Scott Wagman's campaign Web site even has a prominent ticker counting down the seconds until absentee ballot mailing begins.
So St. Petersburg voters should brace themselves. In just over a month, mayoral candidates will start flooding homes with campaign fliers, phone calls and even personal visits in an effort to bank those mail-in ballots nearly two months before election day.
"The race has not garnered a lot of energy or a lot of attention from the public, and we're concerned that the voting public will be caught unawares about who's running and why any one candidate should be chosen," said Wagman, a businessman and philanthropist. "We're going to have to really ramp up our efforts to communicate our message, probably in the first week of July."
The last open mayor's race produced about 26 percent turnout in the 2001 primary, which this year would translate to about 42,000 votes. Early voting stands to benefit the best-known candidates, as well as those who have the money and campaign organization to target, track and follow up with voters who have received and not yet returned their ballots.
"Anyone that has a ballot in hand that can send it at any time, those are the ones where there's a sense of urgency to speak to before Sept. 1," said candidate Bill Foster, an attorney and former City Council member. "The way we're looking at it, the election will be over before Sept. 1."
But the already unpredictable nature of a race with 11 candidates, coupled with uncertainties about the new absentee ballot emphasis, has every campaign working without a proven play book.
"It's basically two elections, and we're gearing up for the election on July 15," said candidate Kathleen Ford, another attorney and former City Council member. "It's a crapshoot. We know the ballots will go out, but we don't know how many will be returned or when."
Will voters return their ballots within days? Or will they want to wait to see the campaign progress, maybe hold off for later debates or newspaper recommendations? Nobody knows, but there is some evidence they will be sent sooner rather than later.
For the March 10 municipal elections, the Pinellas elections office started mailing ballots Jan. 22. About half of the more than 12,000 ballots eventually cast by mail were returned within the first two weeks — five weeks before election day. Of the more than 33,000 ballots mailed to registered voters, about 37 percent were returned by election day, accounting for two out of every three votes cast.
Campaign professionals have long been accustomed to trying to bank early votes by targeting absentee voters, but there has never been a St. Petersburg mayor's race where early voting has played as decisive role as it is expected to this year.
The development largely stems from Pinellas Elections Supervisor Deborah Clark's aggressive encouragement of mail-in voting. Pinellas voters who went to vote in the last presidential election were asked if they wanted to receive mail-in ballots for future elections, and tens of thousands were put on a list to receive them automatically.
Unlike the presidential election, there will be no early-voting sites for people who want to vote in person, because municipalities did not want to pay the expense.
Eleven candidates are currently running for St. Petersburg mayor, and the primary is expected to winnow the field to two candidates who face off Nov. 3. But there won't be much time for those surviving two candidates to catch their breath. Mail-in voting starts just two weeks after the primary.
Adam C. Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8241.